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Mathematics at Victoria in Retrospect

Mathematics At Victoria In Retrospect

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Mathematics At Victoria In Retrospect

Mathematics has had its place in the 75 years of the history of this institution. This sketch of past years will deal with the Professors, the Staff, students and syllabuses.

The Professors Applied Chair Pure Chair
R C Maclaurin1899-1907
D K Picken 1908-1914
D M Y Sommerville 1915-1934
F F Miles 1935-1951
J T Campbell 1952-1969
A G Mackie 1962-1965
J C Ward 1966
C J Seelye 1967-1974
D Vere-Jones 1970
R Sandler 1972-

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin was born in Scotland in 1870. His family claims as a forbear Colin Maclaurin (1698-1746) whose mathematical series is well-known. Richard Maclaurin was brought by his family to New Zealand at the age of 4. After a brilliant performance at Auckland University College he went to Cambridge where in 1896 he was bracketed with the Senior Wrangler, won the Smith Prize in mathematics and became a fellow of St John's College. After a brief visit to Strasbourg to study philosophy he took up law, entered Lincoln's Inn, won in 1898 the Yorke Prize for a dissertation on "Title to Reality" (which examined the law relating to real estate from the time of William the Conqueror). Later he received a Cambridge LL.D. As an aside, Richard had a brother Dr James Scott Maclaurin, a chemist who discovered the cyanide process for recovering gold. When he was awarded the 1851 Travelling Scholarship he declined and remained in New Zealand. This scholarship was then offered to and taken up by Ernest Rutherford. When J S Maclaurin was Dominion Analyst, I occasionally saw him when, as a lad in the 1920's, I visited my father in the Dominion Laboratory. Dr Maclaurin was a quiet and humble man who became rather a recluse in his later years.

Professor Maclaurin was reckoned to be the most intellectual of the four foundation professors. He was a much admired person, astonishingly brilliant, versatile, charming, already a figure in the English university scene with the choice of two careers before him. Some quixotic streak in his make up impelled him to do the patriotic thing and repay his debt to New Zealand and bury himself in an obscure, poorly paid, laborious post in a commercial town profoundly indifferent to higher eduction. His modesty was coupled with worldly wisdom. He had a 5-year contract and intended returning to Europe. He joined the Wellington Club and a very select Masonic Lodge. He was a highly polished raconteur and was a good teacher (so the historian says but one distinguished O.C. told me he found the lectures pretty dull; they were often over the heads of the first year students who were rather left to feel their inferiority). His inaugural lecture contained references to non-euclidian geometry, to page 2 Hertz's experiments which verified Maxwell's theory about possible wireless waves and finally to the application of mathematics to help biological studies in elucidating evolutionary theories. He used the population of Wellington as an example. The last topic is of interest in view of the current emphasis on bio-mathematics.

In 7 years he had but 3 honours students. He prepared a book: a Treatise in the Theory of Light. After a time he undertook to teach law and received the title of Dean of the Faculty of Law.

In 1907 he accepted the Chair of Mathematical Physics at Columbia University, N.Y. "It cannot be said that our citizens knew either what they had harboured or what they had lost, for ordinary man with difficulty understand the transcendental".

After a year at New York he went to a moribund institution at Boston and within a decade had virtually created the M.I.T. and wore himself out with a President's fund raising activities which realised 8 million dollars. He died in 1920 in his 50th year.

David K Picken a native of Glasgow went thence with a brilliant degree to Cambridge and returned as chief assistant to the Glasgow Professor. He was selected to our Chair (over Sommerville who was to succeed him and A C Gifford, a Wellington College master after whom the observatory there is named). Picken had a "wide and candid forehead, curly hair, the air of 'a startled cherub, an earnest Christian working with all his might". He was startled by the inadequacy of New Zealand youth to the study of higher mathematics, and shocked by the peculiar university system with central control of syllabuses and of the appointment of overseas examiners. He was immediately a most outspoken critic of the system. In 1912 Picken made a far from tactful speech – as a candid reformer he followed the truth wherever it might lead him – even into hot water! [See p.148 of J C Beaglehole's History].

He published a trigonometry text with proper emphasis on trig functions as mathematical functions. He retained an interest in the foundations of mathematics.

In 1915 he became Master of Ormond College, Melbourne a post he held in 1943. Writing for the 1949 Golden Jubilee he remembers with admiration and affection the strong corporate personal life here, the exceptional leadership of student bodies and the happy relation of student leaders with their professorial seniors.

He was succeeded in 1915 by D M Y Sommerville. He continued the Scottish procession; a St Andrews man, he had lectured at his own University, and came out as an F.R.S. of Edinburgh. Quiet, not of abounding physical strength, an excellent teacher, a considerable student of his subject – he was described as the ablest Scottish geometer of his time, the most distinguished mathematician his University had produced for a generation at least – and the writer of more than one book of first-rate importance in its field, he conferred a measure of international academic lustre upon the college without stirring controversy; a rather shy and charming man, it seems not unfitting that, with all his mathematical talent, his hobby should be water colour painting. His sudden unostentatious death in 1934 left the college scarcely quieter, but certainly intellectually poorer, than it had been.

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I had been warned at Wellington College before I arrived as a fresher in 1930 that Sommerville was a stickler for accuracy and precision and I imagined a slick, severe type of man. Hence at my very first lecture Applied Mathematics I at 9 a.m. on Monday, I wondered who the quietly dressed lecturer was with his weather beaten face, wiry hair, twinkling soft blue eyes and softly spoken voice. Afterward repeating students were able to confirm this was indeed the feared Professor.

He taught me particularly to admire elegance in mathematics and I enjoyed his steady precise style although some of my competent contemporaries recall that they found him rather remote and sometimes "up in the clouds". But he was universally respected and we always spoke of "dear old Sommy". In 1933 he began the course with us two honours students (my colleague later became a Professor of Anthropology in U.S.A.) taking us in his study for the first two weeks but then was off duty with a heart condition. He really determined my career. I was primarily a physics student who did mathematics as well. He kindly gave me a copy of his recommendation when I applied for a travelling scholarship. This flattered my mathematical ability, gave me a swelled head and encouraged me to take mathematics more seriously. When he heard at the N.Z. University office of my success in getting honours he mentioned to Dr E Marsden he would send me a congratulatory telegram. This he did just before he returned home to Titahi Bay, collapsed and died – a great shock to all the University.

F F Miles "Freddie" Miles had a brilliant intellect and with a Rhodes Scholarship left Otago for Oxford to have his studies interrupted by a lengthy service in the Great War. In all, he gained "firsts" in History, French, and Mathematics. In 1922 he applied for a lectureship in mathematics here and also for [unclear: 2] lectureships in French here and elsewhere. He was successful with his three applications and accepted the first but mixed up his replies in the envelopes. However, after a sleepless night, he managed to restore the situation without loss of face. He was a man of great integrity, ponderous in manner and his lectures were marred by "ers" and long pauses. He maintained his wide cultural interest and presided over the local French Club for many years. Although his reading was exceptionally wide he did not greatly extend his mathematical knowledge here which of course was fully adequate even for the wide range of the topics on which he had to lecture.

He retired prematurely and suddenly at about 58 years of age when he suffered a sustained bout of depression. He announced his intention to me at afternoon tea one day, so I prepared to take over his stage II geometry lecture for 8 a.m. the next morning. Subsequently after shock treatment he recovered and spent a happy retirement at Christchurch but died a few years ago.

J T Campbell Miles was succeeded in 1952 by J T Campbell who had been his assistant since 1935. Campbell was a most energetic, lively person. Born in Scotland, he was brought up in Gisborne, graduated from Otago and did his Ph.D. in Statistics at Edinburgh under the late A C Aitken. He generated enthusiasm and was vitally interested in students and staff as individuals. He was a crusader for the introduction of proper statistical methods, advised Massey College, the Dairy Board, influenced several Government departments in establishing better statistical facilities and exercised a particular influence on the founding of the institution now known as the A.M.D.

Campbell's writing was distinctive and students claimed it took a year to learn how to decode it.

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Although an enthusiast for statistics he was loath to have it included as a formal degree subject but he gave special non-credit courses to interested groups. He established an excellent liaison between our Department and secondary school teachers of mathematics. He retired at the beginning of 1969. Given the status of Emeritus Professor he now lives in retirement at Nelson.

Meanwhile in 1962 a second chair was established for Applied Mathematics and A G Mackie filled this for 3 years. He came from a post at St Andrews with a good research second in fluid mechanics and integral transform methods. Naturally he pushed applied mathematics very hard and being comparatively free of administration, he fostered his own and departmental research. He supervised Graeme Wake as our departments first Ph.D. candidate. He left for an attractive research post in Maryland, U.S.A. but soon moved to a new chair in applied mathematics attached to the Engineering School in his first university of Edinburgh.

Professor J C Ward F.R.S. came to succeed Mackie but after a very brief stay moved on to Macquarrie. I got this chair in 1967 and automatically succeeded to the headship when Campbell retired. Professor D Vere-Jones filled his vacant chair in 1970 and Professor R Sandler came from Chicago to the new third chair in pure mathematics in 1972. These men are too young and still with us to praise at this stage.