Died: 25 April 1840 in Sceaux (near Paris), France
Siméon-Denis Poisson's parents were not from the nobility and, although it was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the nobility and the bourgeoisie in France in the years prior to the Revolution, nevertheless the French class system still had a major influence on his early years. The main reason for this was that the army was one of the few occupations where the nobility enjoyed significant institutional privileges and Poisson's father had been a soldier. Certainly Poisson's father was discriminated against by the nobility in the upper ranks of the army and this made a large impression on him. After retiring from active service he was appointed to a lowly administrative post which he held at the time that his son Siméon-Denis was born. There is no doubt that Siméon-Denis's family put a great deal of energy into helping him have a good start in life.
Now Siméon-Denis was not the first of his parents children but several of his older brothers and sisters had failed to survive. Indeed his health was also very fragile as a child and he was fortunate to pull through. This may have been because his mother, fearing that her young child would die, entrusted him to the care of a nurse to bring him through the critical period. His father had a large influence on his young son, devoting time to teach him to read and write.
Siméon-Denis was eight years old when the Parisian insurrection of 14 July 1789 heralded the start of the French Revolution. As might be expected of someone who had suffered discrimination at the hands of the nobility, Poisson senior was enthusiastic about the political turn of events. One immediate consequence for his support of the Revolution was the fact that he became president of the district of Pithiviers which is in central France, about 80 km south of Paris. From this position he was able to influence the future career of his son.
Poisson's father decided that the medical profession would provide a secure future for his son. An uncle of Poisson's was a surgeon in Fontainebleau and Poisson was sent there to become an apprentice surgeon. However, Poisson found that he was ill suited to be a surgeon. Firstly he lacked coordination to quite a large degree which meant that he completely failed to master the delicate movements required. Secondly it was quickly evident that, although he was a talented child, he had no interest in the medical profession. Poisson returned home from Fontainebleau having essentially failed to make the grade in his apprenticeship and his father had to think again to find a career for him.
Times were changing quite quickly in France which was by this time a republic. No longer were certain professions controlled by the nobility as they had been and there had been moves towards making education available to everyone. In 1796 Poisson was sent back to Fontainebleau by his father, this time to enrol in the École Centrale there. On the one hand he had shown a great lack of manual dexterity, but he now showed that he had great talents for learning, especially mathematics. His teachers at the École Centrale were extremely impressed and encouraged him to sit the entrance examinations for the École Polytechnique in Paris. He sat these examinations and proved his teachers right, for although he had far less formal education than most of the young men taking the examinations he achieved the top place.
Few people can have achieved academic success as quickly as Poisson did. When he began to study mathematics in 1798 at the École Polytechnique he was therefore in a strong position to cope with the rigours of a hard course, yet overcome the deficiencies of his early education. There were certainly problems for him to overcome for he had little experience of the social or academic environment into which he was suddenly thrust. It was therefore to his credit that he was able to undertake his academic studies with great enthusiasm and diligence, yet find time to enjoy the theatre and other social activities in Paris. His only weakness was the lack of coordination which had made a career as a surgeon impossible. This was still a drawback to him in some respects for drawing mathematical diagrams was quite beyond him.