1788 - 1852


Thomas 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 in 1831.

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 justice.

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.

The Old 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


Charles T. Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens (Vol. 1).  Chicago: Biographical Publishing Company, 1904, pp. 604-612.

W. W. Jennings, Transylvania: Pioneer University of the West, New York: Pageant Press, 1955.

Old Woodward: A Memorial, Cincinnati: Old Woodward Club, 1884.