Biography of Bertrand Russell

Photo of Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was a twentieth century philosopher and pacifist.

When and Where was he Born?

18th May 1872, at Cleddon Hall, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales.

Family Background:

Bertrand Russell’s father was John, the son of Lord John Russell, 1st Earl Russell and two-time British Liberal Prime Minister (1840’s and 1860’s) and architect of the Great Reform Bill of 1832. His mother was Katherine daughter of the 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley. His parents died when he was very young and he was brought up by his grandmother, the widow of Lord John Russell who aimed to educate him to become Prime Minister one day like his Grandfather.


Private tuition at home by a series of tutors. He was shown a work by Euclid by his brother Frank and became fascinated for the rest of his life. Trinity College, Cambridge. He also found the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley a revelation.

Timeline of Bertrand Russell:

1874: Death of his mother Katherine of diphtheria and his older sister Rachel.

1876: Death of father of bronchitis. Russell’s grandfather and grandmother overturned his father’s will to win custody of Russell and his brother and not bring them up as agnostics.

1878: Death of his grandfather. Lady Russell takes over his upbringing at at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, London.

1889:¬†Russell visits the Paris Exhibition with the Pearsall Smith family of American Quakers to whom he was “Lord John’s grandson.” Climbed the Eiffel Tower soon after it was completed.

1890: Russell goes to Trinity College, Cambridge studying mathematics and philosophy and the moral sciences.

1893: He is awarded a BA (First Class) in Mathematics.

1894: He completes his Moral Sciences Tripos during the summer a goes to Paris to be an attache at the British Embassy. After his marriage to Alys Pearsall Smith in December he spends a few months in Berlin studying social democracy he went to live in Haslemere.

1896: Russell is appointed as a lecturer of German Social Democracy at the London School of Economics.

1900: He visits the International Mathematical Congress in Paris.

1901: He first discovers Russell’s Paradox, one of set-theoretical paradoxes, where a set appears to be a member of itself, if it is not a member of itself.

1902: He begins corresponding with the German philosopher Gottlob Frege. He becomes a member of the “Coefficients Dining Club”, a group of social reformers set up by Sidney and Beatrice Webb who were members of the Fabian Society.

1903: He stakes his claim as an important philosopher with the publication of “The Principles of Mathematics.” He works with his friend Alfred Whitehead on the mathematical logic of Frege and Guiseppe Peano. Despite his philosophical leanings he was interested in politics  and spoke out in favour of Free Trade.

1905: Russell develops the Theory of Descriptions”. Writes an article for the Journal “The Mind” on Denoting.

1906: He is elected to the London Mathematical Society.

1907: He runs for Parliament as a Women’s Suffrage Candidate and is defeated.

1908: He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He becomes a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

1910: Russell is appointed as a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge. He begins the publication of “Principia Mathematica” with Whitehead. He receives an approach from an Austrian Engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he took on immediately as a PhD student when he saw examples of his work. Russell thought Wittgenstein a genius and encouraged his work on logic.

1911: Russell meets Wittgenstein in person for the first time. He is elected President of the Aristotelian Society. He finally separates from his wife Alys after an estrangement which began in 1901 and begins an affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell.

1914: He opposes the First World War on pacifist grounds and feared that a long military struggle could set European civilisation backwards.

Bertrand Russell's flat
Flat in which Bertrand Russell lives near the British Museum between 1911-1916. (copyright Anthony Blagg)
Bertrand Russell Plaque
Detail of plaque

1916: He received a fine of £110 for his pacifist views and was later dismissed from his post at Trinity College after writing an anti-conscription leaflet.

1918: Russell was sent to Brixton Prison for six months due to continuing anti-war protests particularly against the involvement of the U.S.A. in the war and in particular an article he had written in the journal “Tribunal”.

1920: He travels to Russia with a British Government delegation to study Bolshevism and had a one hour conversation with Vladimir Lenin. Once and admirer of the Revolution he became appalled by the brutality and lack of liberty he found in the Soviet system. He later went on to take up a post lecturing in Peking University in China for one year. He became gravely ill with pneumonia whilst there and his “death” was reported in the Japanese press.

1921: He gets divorced from Alys and Marries Dora Black. Birth of his son John Conrad on 16 November. The Russell family settle in Chelsea, London.

1922: Russell again defeated at an election for Parliament. He helped Wittgenstein through his various bouts of despair and encouraged him to publish the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”.

1923: Birth of his daughter Katherine.

1927: He opens “Beacon Hill”, an experimental school with his wife at their home, Telegraph House, near Harting, West Sussex.

1932: He finishes his involvement with Beacon Hill School although Dora was to continue until 1943. Death of his brother and he becomes the Third Earl Russell.

1934: He is awarded the Sylvester Medal by the Royal Society and the De Morgan Medal by the London Mathematical Society.

1935: He divorces Dora due to her adultery with an American journalist, Griffin Barry whom she had had two children by.

1936: Russell marries Oxford undergraduate Patricia Spence often known as Peter. She had been his children’s governess during the summer of 1930.

1937: Birth of his son Conrad. Lectured on the Science of Power.

1938: Russell supports the policy of appeasement of Germany but later came to realise that Hitler had to be defeated. He went to the United States to teach.

1939: He is appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles. He began a series of lectures which was to culminate in his most famous work “A History of Western Philosophy” which was published in 1945.

1940: He is appointed lecturer at City College New York, but this was withdrawn after a public protests and a legal judgment that Russell was not morally fit to teach.

1941: Russell took part in the radio programme the Brains Trust on the BBC Home Service.

1943: He is dismissed from the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania but fights a law suit for wrongful dismissal against them and wins.

1944: He is re-elected as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and returns to live in Britain. He begins to speak out against the dangers of Russia and the atomic bomb.

1945: He publishes the work for which he has become most famous “A History of Western Philosophy”. This became a best-selling title and gave him a steady income for the rest of his life.

1948: At a speech at Westminster School he shocked some of his listeners at a New Commonwealth meeting by seeming to suggest a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. In October Russell was one of 24 survivors in an airliner crash on his way to Trondheim in Norway to give one of his lectures.

1949: He is awarded the Order of Merit.

1950: Russell is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of his varied writings championing humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.

1952: He gets divorced from Patricia and marries Edith Finch. They had known each other since 1925 and Edith had taught at a college in Philadelphia.

1955: Release of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto at Caxton Hall London calling for nuclear disarmament. The document was signed by 11 prominent nuclear physicists and intellectuals.

1957: He is elected President of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World affairs.

1958: He becomes the founding President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

1961: Russell is imprisoned for one week with his wife for civil disobedience for organising anti-nuclear protests.

1962: During the Cuban Missile Crisis Russell exchanged telegrams with Nikita Khrushchev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, who assured him the U.S.S.R. would not be reckless.

1963: He establishes the Bertrand Russell peace foundation. He opposes the Vietnam War and speaks out against the United States. He becomes the first recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, for writers concerned with the freedom of the individual.

1965: Russell tears up his membership card for the Labour Party.

1967: He publishes the first volume of his autobiography.

1970: He publishes a call for the withdrawal from the occupied Territories by Israel.

When and Where did he Die?

2nd February 1970, Plas Penrhyn, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, Wales, of influenza.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1896: “German Social Democracy, a study in politics”.
1897: “Foundations of Geometry”.
1900: “A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz”.
1903: “Principles of Mathematics”, vol. 1.
1910: “Philosophical Essays”, “Principia Mathematica” (with Dr. A. N. Whitehead).
1912: “The Problems of Philosophy”.
1916: “Principles of Social Reconstruction”.
1919: “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy”. (written in prison)
1920: “The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism”.
1921: “The Analysis of Mind”.
1923: “The ABC of Atoms”.
1924: “Logical Atomism”.
1925: “The ABC of Relativity”.
1926: “On Education”.
1927: “An Outline of Philosophy”, “The Analysis of Matter”.
1929: “Marriage and Morals”.
1930: “The Conquest of Happiness”.
1935: “In Praise of Idleness”.
1938: “Power: A new Social Introduction to its Study”.
1941: “An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth”.
1945:  “A History of Western Philosophy”.
1948: “Human Knowledge, its Scope and Limits”.
1949: “Authority and the Individual”.


  1. December 1894 to Alys Pearsall Smith.
  2. 1921 to Dora Russell.
  3. 1936 to Patricia (“Peter”) Spence.
  4. 1952 to Edith Finch.

Site of Grave:

He was cremated at Colwyn Bay, North Wales, on 5 February 1970 with no religious ceremony. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains. There is a memorial plaque in the chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Places of Interest:


Trinity College, Cambridge.