Sue Young Histories

Alexander John Ellis 1814 - 1890

December 17, 2009

PygmalionAlexander John Ellis 1814 - 1890 was a British mathematician and philologist. He was acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw as the prototype of Professor Henry Higgins of Pygmalion. (My Fair Lady).

Alexander John Ellis was on the Management Committee (Anon, Homeopathic Medical Directory of Great Britain and Ireland, (1868). Page 92) of the London Homeopathic Hospital, was active in homeopathic politics (Anon, The British Journal of Homeopathy, (1870). Page 580) and an ardent advocate (Anon, The British Journal of Homeopathy, (1870). Page 580. See also Anon, The Monthly Homeopathic Review, (1872). Page 379) of homeopathy.

Alexander John Ellis gave a speech to the staff of the London Homeopathic Hospital in 1872:

‘… My lord, ladies, and gentlemen, it is my duty to propose to you the next resolution, namely, ” That a vote of thanks be given to the medical staff for their valuable and zealous services during the past year…’ (Anon, The Monthly Homeopathic Review, (1872). Page 379).

Alexander John Ellis was a patient of John Rutherford Russell, and a friend of George MacDonald, George Bernard Shaw,

From Alexander John Ellis changed his name from his father’s name Sharpe to his mother’s maiden name Ellis in 1825, based on a condition for receiving significant financial support from a relative on his mother’s side.

Initially trained in mathematics and the classics, he became a well-known phonetician of his time. Through his work in phonetics he also became interested in vocal pitch and by extension in musical pitch as well as speech and song.

Ellis is also noted for translating and extensively annotating Hermann Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone. The second edition of this translation, published in 1885, contains an appendix which summarizes Ellis’ own work on related matters.

In his writings on musical pitch and scales, Ellis elaborates his notion and notation of cents for musical intervals which became especially influential in Comparative musicology, a predecessor of ethnomusicology. Analyzing the scales (tone systems) of various extra European musical traditions, Ellis also showed that the diversity of tone systems cannot be explained by a single physical law, as had been argued by earlier scholars.

In part V of his work On Early English Pronunciation, he applied the Dialect Test across Britain, and distinguished forty two different dialects in England and the Scottish Lowlands.

There are claims that Ellis himself was pitch deaf, i.e. could not distinguish different pitches with his own ears. Today, this claim is often not supported anymore.

He was acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw as the prototype of Professor Henry Higgins of Pygmalion. (My Fair Lady).

Of interest:

Rev. Edward Ellis was the Chaplain at the Blackheath Home for Gentlewomen, and a Trustee at the Lower Tottenham Infirmary for Woman and Children,

John Ellis was a British homeopath in 1868,


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