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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review October, 1920

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin

page 43

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, descendant of a long line of intellectuals, was born at Lindean, Scotland, on 5th June, 1870. Of the Maclaurins of the eighteenth century, John, son of a most scholarly divine, was regarded as the greatest preacher Scotland produced in that century, while Colin, his brother, friend of Isaac Newton and Professor of Mathematics at. Aberdeen and, later, at Edinburgh, is described as the one mathematician of first rank trained in Great Britain in the eighteenth century. Other men eminent in law and in letters have come of this stock. Maclaurin came to New Zealand with his parents at the age of five, and received his earlier education in the public school of which his father was teacher at. Hautapu, in the Auckland district. Gaining a scholarship, he went to the Auckland College and Grammar School, and came top of the University Junior Scholarship list. At Auckland University College he had the great advantage of studying mathematics under Aldis, and he gained a Senior Scholarship.' In 1892 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge. There he found himself one of a marvelouslly brilliant assemblage of students drawn from all parts of the world, partly by the Research degree in Science, more by the greatness of the men who were then bringing Cambridge to an eminence of fame that probably no University has ever surpassed, and among these famous men none more famous than J. J. Thomson. Maclaurin found himself working beside such men as Bromwich, Whitaker, Rutherford, C. T. R. Wilson, G. W. Walker, H. A. Wilson, Jeans, and many others who have achieved fame. Among his closest friends was Smuts. A member of the Victoria University College Council who was then at Cambridge, tells us that Maclaurin's day at Cambridge was filled in in this way—lectures, a walk with some of his more intimate friends, Hall, a couple of hours at whist, and then, about 9 at night, the beginning of a long evening's work. His friends were men of all countries, but especially those from overseas. The whole of the brilliant coterie recognised him as an intellectual peer, or something more than a peer. He took the degree of Bachelor in 1895, and that of Master in 1896. He was bracketed with the Senior Wrangler in the first division of the Mathematical Tripos, and he was awarded the Smith prize, his thesis being considered better than that of the Senior Wrangler, an almost unique honour. He was made a Fellow of St. John 's. He then travelled for a time in the United States and in Canada, spending most of his time at famous Universities. He returned to Cambridge and. took up seriously the study of law, gaining the McMahon studentship. He gained Whewwell Scholarship in law, and, just as he had gained the most coveted of all prizes in mathematics, so he now gained the most coveted prize in law, the Yorke prize. His thesis for this prize was on "The Title of Reality." This was towards the close of 1898, and at that time he was appointed to the Professorship in in mathematics at Victoria University College, one of the four original professorships. Victoria was then more impecunious than it is now, and he readily agreed, as did his coadjutors, to take work in addition to that for which he had been appointed, and he became the first Law Lecturer as well as the first Professor of Mathematics. How well he did the work of both faculties the first students of the College know, and their testimony is ample and page 44 ungrudging. They and all of us know what a hold he obtained upon them, and the pages of the earlier numbers of "The Spike" show how cordial and kindly were the relations that existed. On the appointment of Salmond, Maclaurin was relieved of the work in law. But it soon became evident that Salmond was too good a man for the University to afford to keep. Maclaurin was then appointed Dean of the acuity of Law, resigning Mathematics. But, as we could not keep Salmond, neither could we keep Maclaurin, and in 1907 he accepted appointment to the Chair of Mathematics and Physics at Columbia University, New York. In 1908 he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His services there may be summed up in words taken from the memorial pamphlet issued by the Institute:—

"Caesar Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, ten years ago, found a great institution barred from potential supremacy in its field by poverty. Trained as a scholar and investigator rather than as administrator, he addressed himself to the problem of administration and of endowment under heart-breaking difficulties.

"In ten years he moved the Institute to Cambridge, found the land and the money to buy the land, found a munificent donor, found subsidy from the State, made a statesmanlike arrangement with Harvard University, put the Institute at the service of the Government in time of war and administered that service notably, then laboured for a permanent endowment which should leave him free to carry out his long-cherished plans for more perfect organisation and usefulness."

The tribute to his devotion goes on to say:—

"Worn out with that struggle for money, he died, as died Rogers and Walker before him, sacrifices. He saw his great endowment secure, his student body doubled, his faculty growing, and the inception of a plan which should give the school permanent and increasing funds and unexampled opportunities for usefulness.

"At the moment of that triumph, on the threshold of that greater constructive service to which he had looked forward so eagerly for ten years, he died. His death was tragic, but in proportion as it was tragic, noble. To him more than to any other single man the world owes the new Institute, which 5s the old Institute for the first time capable of its opportunities. The foundation stones of this new school are cemented with his life-blood. That fact, according to ancient tradition, should make its walls eternal. Let it be so!"

Maclaurin's death took place on 15th January last. His illness had been a short one, and at first no danger was feared. But what was at first thought to be influenza of the ordinary type developed as pneumonia, and this acting on a system weakened by unremitting and arduous work, he was unable to shake off. We, his older friends, join with his newer friends across the sea in heartfelt sympathy extended to Mrs. Maclaurin and her two boys and to his relatives in New Zealand.

"Maclaurin's published work," says Professor Sommerville, "is confined almost entirely to mathematical physics. His first important paper, published in the Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1898, shortly before he came to New Zealand, was an extended monograph dealing with the solutions of a certain differential equation and its application to various page 45 problems in mathematical physics. From 1905 to 1907 he contributed a series of five papers to the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, all relating to the theory of optics. These were embodied in his "Theory of Light, Part I." (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1908), an original and scholarly treatise in which the author develops the fundamental results by the Principle of Least Action. It was the intention of the author that this volume should be followed by two further parts, but unfortunately his intention was never carried out.

"In 1902 he attended the meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, at Hobart, and delivered an address on "The Scope and Method of Mathematical Physics."