George Francis Fitzgerald 1881-1901

George Francis Fitzgerald 1881-1901George Francis Fitzgerald was born on 3rd August 1851. He grew up in Monkstown, Co. Dublin. His father, William Fitzgerald, was a curate in the Church of Ireland in Monkstown and his mother, Anne Frances, was the sister of George Johnstone Stoney, the Irish physicist known for introducing the term electron and a graduate of Trinity College. He did not attend school but was tutored by Mary Ann, sister of George Boole along with his brothers and sisters. Fitzgerald proved himself to be an exceptional student in arithmetic and algebra. He began studying mathematics and experimental philosophy at 16 in Trinity. He graduated in 1871, top of his class. Fitzgerald became a Fellow in 1877 and was appointed Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy in 1881.


Following his graduation, Fitzgerald spent his time studying the works of Hamilton, Lagrange, and Laplace. Maxwell published his equations of electromagnetism during this period. Fitzgerald, together with Oliver Heaviside and Oliver Lodge (the ‘Maxwellians’ of the book by Bruce Hunt) spent much of the rest of his life pursuing an understanding of light. Fitzgerald helped lay the basis of wireless telegraphy when he concluded that an oscillating electric current produces electromagnetic waves. This was verified Experimentally by Heinrich Hertz.

Fitzgerald’s name is associated with the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction in the special theory of relativity by Einstein. The Michelson-Morley experiment in the 1880s resulted in failure to detect the existence of the ether, a medium in which light was believed to exist. Fitzgerald in 1889 and, later, Hendrik Lorentz in Leiden, proposed that a body in motion through the ether is shorter (contracted) than when at rest. This contraction was proposed to explain the failure to detect the presence of the ether by Michelson and Morley. Subsequently, Lorentz developed the idea of a Lorentz transformation in which the geometry of space-time itself depends on relative motion rather than the mechanical effect initially proposed by Fitzgerald and Lorentz.

When Fitzgerald was appointed Erasmus Smith’s professor, he used a disused chemical laboratory to begin teaching Experimental physics as there was no teaching of practical physics in Dublin at that time. Fitzgerald also had a strong belief in education once stating that ’The function of the University is primarily to teach mankind’ then further stating  ’Are the Universities to devote the energies of the most advanced intellects of the age to the instruction of the whole nation, or to the instruction of the few whose parents can afford them an - in some places fancy - education that can in the nature of things be only attainable by the rich?’ [3]. In 1898 he was the Commissioner of National Education in Ireland with hopes of reforming education by introducing more practical topics for primary education. Fitzgerald also wished for the ’modernisation’ of Trinity College and supported women in higher education. Fitzgerald was secretary of the Royal Dublin Society for 8 years and attended meetings of the British Association, now known as the British Science Association. He was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1883 and the Royal Medal of the Society in 1899 (awarded to those who make outstanding achievements in their field). Fitzgerald married Harriette Mary Jellett in 1885, daughter of the Provost of Trinity. They had five daughters and three sons. He died on 22nd February 1901, after an operation due to a digestive complaint. His portrait hangs in the library of the Fitzgerald Building in Trinity College.



  1. Gillian O’Neill. (2020, June 3). ‘Flightless Fitzgerald’: Remembering one of Trinity’s Greatest Scientific Pioneers. University Times. (Accessed June 2023)
  2. Denis Weaire. (2009, October). Fitzgerald, George Frances. Dictionary of Irish Biography. (Accessed June 2023)
  3. J. Connor, E. F. Robertson. (2003, October). George Frances Fitzgerald. MacTutor. University of St Andrews. (Accessed June 2023)
  4. Eric Finch (2016), Three Centuries of Physics in Trinity College, Living Edition
  5. Image of George Francis FitzGerald, By Hollinger and Rockey photographers, New York. - Scanned from Oliver Heaviside: Sage in Solitude, From the Physics Digital Archive