Fitzgerald, George Francis (1851–1901), physicist, was born 3 August 1851 at Kill o’ the Grange rectory, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, the son of William Fitzgerald (1814–83), who went on to become bishop of Cork and later of Killaloe, and his wife Anne Frances, a niece of George Johnstone Stoney (qv). In later life Fitzgerald lived at 7 Ely Place, Dublin. After an education at home, in which he was tutored by the sister of George Boole (qv), he entered TCD, and took first place in mathematics and experimental science in 1871. Having secured a college fellowship in 1877, he became Erasmus Smith professor of natural and experimental philosophy in 1881, and the rest of his life centred on that role. In 1883 he was elected FRS, and he was awarded the Society's Royal Medal in 1899. He served as president of the Physical Society of London 1892–3, and was an active editor of the Philosophical Magazine in the 1890s. He married (21 December 1883) Harriette May (1861–1919), daughter of John Hewitt Jellett (qv), in a further intertwining of notable Trinity lineages; they had eight children.
Fitzgerald was the outstanding physicist of his generation working in Ireland and an acknowledged international leader of his subject. Among physicists his main claim to fame is the Lorentz–Fitzgerald contraction, which has an enduring place in the theory of relativity. In 1889 the idea occurred to him, while visiting Oliver Lodge in Liverpool, that the length of a moving body should be reduced in its direction of motion, as an explanation of the puzzling null result of the Michelson–Morley experiment. This he published in a short note in the American journal Science, forgetting about it until Hendrik Lorentz published something similar several years later. The brevity of Fitzgerald's paper invited later misunderstanding, it being assumed to have depended largely on guesswork; rather it arose out of his deep understanding of the electromagnetic theory formulated by James Clerk Maxwell. Indeed he was the doyen of an international ‘invisible college’ devoted to the subject. These so-called Maxwellians included many of the greatest physicists of that period: J. J. Thomson, Oliver Lodge, Joseph Larmor (qv), Heinrich Hertz, Oliver Heaviside. Out of their debates arose another remarkable inspiration for Fitzgerald, to the effect that electromagnetic waves might be generated by oscillating electrical circuits. This was vindicated by Hertz in 1887, in an experiment that was the birth of the age of radio transmission. Nevertheless Fitzgerald seems to have played little part in the practical development of radio by Guglielmo Marconi (qv) and others.
Many other fertile ideas (and a few wrong ones) were promulgated by him in correspondence or short publications, and at the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. For example, he speculated that the speed of a moving body could not exceed that of light, and that gravity might have to do with a distortion of space by matter. On a more practical level, he participated with W. H. S. Monck (qv) in the first photoelectric measurements in astronomy. He recognised his own tendency to ‘rush out with all sorts of crude notions in hope that they may set others thinking and lead to some advance’ (Scientific writings). His collected works would do little justice to his contemporary stature and influence (even if supplemented by dozens of items not included), were they not prefaced by extended tributes in obituaries.
Closer to home, Fitzgerald cut an imposing figure in TCD and Dublin society as ‘the idol of the undergraduates and the hope of the senior men’ (ibid.), campaigning for science and decrying the more traditional subjects. He promoted sports, and in 1895 put his own athletic ability to use in flying a Lilienthal glider (the first in the British Isles) in the College Park. He was active in the Dublin University Experimental Science Association, where the latest inventions were regularly displayed and discussed. His students and assistants included E. E. Fournier D'Albe (qv), John Joly (qv), Thomas Preston (qv), J. S. E. Townsend (qv), Frederick Trouton (qv), and T. R. Lyle (qv). He also served as a commissioner of national education and intermediate education, seeking to promote a practical approach and the foundation of technical schools. His impassioned speeches on this theme, to which he intended to devote his later years, retain much of their force. His name has been memorialised in the renaming of the Physical Laboratory (1906) at TCD, latterly the Fitzgerald Building. He had just begun to plan for its construction at the time of his death of a stomach ulcer 22 February 1901. John Joly saw the project through to completion with the support of Lord Iveagh (qv). The building houses portraits of Fitzgerald and a bronze plaque, on which the undergraduate Fitzgerald Medal is based.
Of the many anguished obituaries (including one in the new American journal Physical Review), Oliver Lodge's (reprinted in Scientific writings) goes to the heart of his nature: ‘impulsive, hot-tempered and totally unselfconscious; he alternated between abstract meditation, highly individual experimentation, and passionate advocacy for his favourite causes’. In one intemperate episode provoked by the home rule movement, he proposed to transfer Trinity College to England. But he was kind and generous as well, and was personally responsible for saving the eccentric English genius Oliver Heaviside from poverty, by framing a strategy that would obtain for him a government pension and induce him to accept it. Others of similar gifts and steadier temperament (such as William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (qv)) registered more explicit achievements, but Fitzgerald's hidden influence is increasingly recognised. The edited version of his historic correspondence is in prospect.