José Monteiro da Rocha (1734-1819)

Mathematician and astronomer, born in Canavezes. He went to Brazil very young and is thought to have been educated by Jesuits in an institution in Baía. He became a Jesuit in 1752, but with the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759, he abandoned this religious order and was ordained a secular priest in Baía in 1760. He returned to Portugal to attend the University of Coimbra between 1766 and 1770, where he graduated in Canons. Due to his interest in science, he was recommended by rector D. D. Francisco de Lemos (1735-1822) to the Marquis of Pombal as the appropriate person to organize the new Faculty of Mathematics created with the Reform of 1772. He collaborated in the preparation of the statutes of the reformed University as regards Natural Sciences and Mathematics. On 10 October 1772, he drew up the opening lesson of the Faculty of Mathematics. The day before, Miguel Franzini (?-1810), Miguel Ciera (?-?) and Monteiro da Rocha had received their PhD title and had been incorporated in the Faculty of Mathematics.

Monteiro da Rocha remained in charge of the subjects of Physical Sciences and Mathematics, namely of Mechanics and Hydrodynamics. In 1783, he became responsible for the subject of Astronomy and in 1795 he was nominated director of the Astronomical Observatory. The construction of the building of the Observatory foreseen in the statutes underwent some ups and downs, having been concluded in 1799. From this date forth, Monteiro da Rocha set about equipping it with instruments from the Colégio dos Nobres in Lisbon and with some ordered from João Jacinto de Magalhães in London.

Around the year 1804, Monteiro da Rocha became a member of the Sociedade Real da Marinha and vice-chairman of the Junta da Direcção Geral de Estudos. He was awarded membership of the Order of Christ and became Counsellor of the Regent Prince D. João (1767-1826), the future D. João VI. In 1804, he left Coimbra and established himself in Lisbon, where he was a frequenter of the court, as tutor of D. João’s son until he left the court for Brazil as a result of the French invasions. He died in S. José de Ribamar, Carnaxide, Lisbon, in 1819.


He published some texts on Mathematics and Astronomy: "Solução geral do Problema de Kepler sobre a medição das Pipas e Toneis", Memórias da Academia Real das Ciências de Lisboa, 1780-1788, 1-36; "Aditamento à regra de M. Fontaine para resolver por aproximação os problemas que se resolvem por quadraturas", Memórias da Academia Real das Ciências de Lisboa, 1780-1788, 218-243; "Determinação das Órbitas dos Cometas", Memórias da Academia Real das Ciências de Lisboa, 1799, 402-479; Explicação da Tabuada Náutica para o Cálculo das Longitudes, Lisbon, 1801. Mémoires sur l'Astronomie Pratique, Paris, 1808. He also published some articles in the periodical Ephemerides Astronómicas, 1803-1807.

Main scientific contributions

Monteiro became quite well known as an astronomer with his "Memória sobre a determinação das órbitas dos cometas", presented to the Academia Real das Ciências de Lisboa on 27 January 1782. As this memoir was only published in 1799, his importance was impaired by the fact of the German astronomer H. Olbers (1758-1840) having proposed the resolution of this same problem in 1787 using a method similar to that of Monteiro’s. Newton had already resolved this problem through a graphic method that was considered as not very practical.

In 1782, Monteiro da Rocha ran for a prize proposed by the Academia de Lisboa, competing against Anastácio da Cunha, and won the prize. In 1785, he competed again, winning the prize once more with a work which, in Anastácio da Cunha’s opinion, was a copy of another work which Cunha had submitted to the Academy in 1780. This situation caused friction between these two mathematicians, with Cunha accusing Monteiro of plagiarism. This issue of the existence of an open conflict between the two mathematicians, which went back some time, when Cunh was still a lector at the University of Coimbra, has never been totally clarified.

Although the statutes of the University laid down that the manuals should be written in the Portuguese language, he never wrote any, limiting himself to translating foreign manuals by French authors such as Bezout Cours de Mathématiques,Traité d'Hydrodinamique e Marie's Traité de Mécanique, whose works were used as manuals for the Mathematics course.

Fernando Reis


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FREIRE, Castro, Memória Histórica da Faculdade de Matemática, Coimbra, 1872.
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