Family Squabbles: The Bernoulli Family

Jacob Bernouli (1654 - 1705)
Johann Bernouli (1667 - 1748)
Daniel Bernoulli (1700 - 1787)

The Bernoulli family may sound like a Mafia family from a television show, but they were the most predominant math family of Europe. Their fame was in the late 17th and early 18th century in Bale, Switzerland. The uniqueness of this particular family is a stubborn streak which brought devastation to the family life.

The Bernoulli family was originally from Holland with strong Calvinism religion. They needed to avoid Spanish religious persecution, so they fled to Switzerland. Nicholas Bernoulli brought the family to Switzerland. This family was not math oriented, they had a spice business in Bale. He had three sons which two of them became the most influential math experts in the academic community yet hostile to each other.

The eldest son, Jacob (James or Jacques), was born 1654 and died 1705 in Bale, Switzerland. His parents compelled him to study philosophy and theology. Like a Bernoulli, he resented the studies but he did acquire a masters in philosophy. He was intrigued with mathematics and astronomy so much he included them with his studies, regardless his parents wishes. He made more of a career in mathematics than philosophy. He became the first Bernoulli to be recognized as a strong influential mathematician.

He contributed highly to probability: if something is going to happen again and again is large amounts, it is likely it will happen most of the time. He may be a brilliant mathematician, but he did have a mean streak.

His younger brother, Johann or John, was born in 1667 and died 1748 in Bale Switzerland. He did not do very well in the spice business. At 16, he entered the University of Bale and studied medicine. He asked his brother, Jacob, to teach him mathematics. By this time, Jacob was a professor of mathematics. After two years under Jacob's tutelage, Johann was his equal.

At first, Jacob had no problem teaching his little brother. He realized his brother's talents and quick-study of mathematics that he offered to work with Johann. As time went on, the Bernoulli blood began to boil.

Johann's ego was getting larger which he began to brag about his work and at the same time he belittled his brother. Jacob was so angry he made crude comments about Johann's abilities. Jacob refer to him as a student repeating what the teacher taught him, in other words a parrot. Jacob and Johann went back and forth with comments in the academic community which developed a notorious reputation of their family togetherness.

Despite family problems, Johann was a excellent mathematician. He used calculus to solve problems which Newton failed to solve in the laws of gravitaiton. By using y=x2, he made all sorts of discoveries of calculus.

In 1695, Jacob was the chair of mathematics in Bale. Johann wanted that chair, but he was offered a chair in Holland. He vowed not to come back to Bale. About 1705, Johann's father-in-law was dying and asking for his daughter and grandchildren, so Johann came back to Bale. While traveling, he did not know his brother, Jacob, died of tuberculosis. Once he realized of his brother's death, Johann took his chair.

Johann had three sons and one of his sons became a profound mathematician. Daniel Bernoulli, born 1700 and died 1787 in Bale. Johann was determined to make Daniel a merchant. Like a Bernoulli, Daniel did not want to learn the business. He wanted to study mathematics. Of course, Johann's stubborness made Daniel to study medicine. He tried to convince Daniel that there is no money in mathematics. Daniel did study medicine and applied mathematical physics to it, which he received a medical doctorate.

Daniel Bernoulli was natural philosopher who applied mathematics in his work. He developed Hydrodynamics. He analyzed the flow of water from a hole in a container. This was for conservation of energy which he developed pumps and machines to raise water.

Daniel was a home-body person. He did not like to travel much. He would get sick, complain about the weather, and be miserable. Daniel travel to Danzig, Hamburg, Holland, and Paris. He worked in Venice and St. Petersburg mostly. He would ask his father to come home, but his father said no. His father sent his best student, Leonard Euler, to work with him. Daniel and Euler worked in St. Petersburg on the vibration and frequency of sounds by using musical instruments. In 1734, he returned to Bale and entered a contest in Paris Academy for his ideas of astronomy. His father entered at the same time which they jointly won the Grand Prize. Johann's ego could not stand being pronounced as an equal to his son, so he banned Daniel from his house. Johann went so far as stole one of Daniel's papers and submit his name to it.

The Bernoulli blood may be filled with fire, but they did have a passion for mathematics.

Contributed by Tina Gonzales


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  6. University of St. Andrews. School of Mathematics and Statistics (September 1998). Johann Bernoulli. [Online]. Available:
  7. Weissten, E. (1996). Bernoulli, Jakob (1654-1705). [Online] Available:

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