Johnson Matthews was
born in Leesburg, Virginia, on January 26, 1788,
the son of Quaker parents Thomas and Sarah Matthews. He came
to Cincinnati from Philadelphia in 1818 and began teaching school.
Soon afterward he met and married Isabella Brown. Their family, including
four sons, would become known as one of the most distinguished in Cincinnati.
In 1823 Matthews was elected
Morrison Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Transylvania
College in Lexington, Kentucky. He became widely known for his skill
and accuracy as a civil engineer when he successfully surveyed the disputed
boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee, from Cumberland Gap to the Tennessee
River. The result of his work became known as the “Matthews Line.”
He also helped to lay out a railroad line from Lexington to Frankfort and,
as the Ohio State Civil Engineer, surveyed the route for the Ohio and Erie
Canal. He was the first editor of
The Transylvanian literary
journal, and he served as acting president of the College for a brief period
Matthews was called back
to Cincinnati in September, 1832, to become the first president of Woodward
High School, where Dr. Joseph Ray was already teaching mathematics.
Matthews and Ray became leaders in the Western Literary Institute and College
of Professional Teachers from 1832 to 1845.
This was the first professional organization for the advancement of education
in the West, and its members successfully advocated such improvements as
graded schools, supervision of schools and teachers, and the establishment
of state superintendents of instruction. Matthews was elected as
the organization’s first president.
Matthews remained at Woodward
for three years, before resigning to become an officer of the Ohio Life
Insurance and Trust company. He was one of five Cincinnati citizens
appointed in 1838 to investigate the causes of a boiler explosion that
destroyed the steamboat Moselle and killed more than 100 people.
The committee’s report, authored by Dr. John Locke, was called a “thoroughly
scientific exposition of the subject.”
On February 5, 1845, Matthews
was elected professor of mathematics and astronomy at Miami University,
a chair that he held for seven years.
In a typical year he taught algebra and theory of equations, plane and
solid geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, differential and integral
calculus, surveying and navigation, analytical mechanics, and astronomy.
With the assistance of Joseph Ray and John Locke, he was able to secure
Miami’s first telescope, purchased from the Cincinnati Observatory.
In June, 1852, Matthews retired
because of ill health (possibly a stroke) and returned to Cincinnati, where
he died of “paralysis” on November 10.
One of his sons, Charles, who had been Joseph Ray’s pupil and assistant
at Woodward College, edited Ray’s Higher Arithmetic and prepared
it for publication after Ray’s death in 1855.
The oldest son, Stanley, became a United States senator and Supreme Court
By all accounts, T. J. Matthews
was highly respected as a teacher and a scholar. Besides mathematics,
he is said to have loved history, moral philosophy, poetry, and English
literature. A note in the Old Woodward memorial volume describes
him as “proficient in English Studies and literature and of unusual ability
as a mathematician.” He
is one of four education pioneers to be honored by a bronze medallion on
the base of the Woodward statue in Cincinnati.
Woodward memorial also says that “no one of [Matthew’s] time in the
West attained a higher reputation as a teacher. In his profession
he was enthusiastic and conscientious, having, in an eminent degree, the
faculty of inspiring his pupils with an earnest zeal for study.”
A colleague at Miami University wrote that, “As a scholar, he was accurate
and profound – as a Professor apt to teach, communicating truth with a
rare clearness and distinctness.”
Article by David E. Kullman
Greve, Centennial History of
Cincinnati and Representative Citizens (Vol.
1). Chicago: Biographical Publishing Company, 1904,
W. W. Jennings, Transylvania: Pioneer University
of the West, New York: Pageant Press, 1955.
Old Woodward: A Memorial, Cincinnati: Old Woodward