Burkill, (John) Charles

(1900-1993), mathematician and college head

by E. J. Kenney

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Burkill, (John) Charles (1900-1993), mathematician and college head, was born on 1 February 1900 at Holt, Norfolk, the only child of Hugh Roberson (Rob) Burkill (1867-1950), a schoolmaster, and his wife, Bertha, née Bourne (1866-1937). His father's family had farmed for generations in the Winteringham area of Lincolnshire; his mother came from a family of farmers and builders in Woodchurch, Kent. From 1911 to 1914 he attended Richmond county school, and from 1914 to 1918 St Paul's School, to which he won a scholarship. Though he later averred that it was a howler in his Latin prose which steered him into the mathematical stream, he was in fact a good Greek and Latin scholar: his recreational reading in later life included the preface to A. E. Housman's great edition of Manilius. He was always deeply grateful for the superb teaching he received at St Paul's in what has been described as the university atmosphere inspired by F. S. Macaulay FRS and maintained by his successors; and his election as a governor of the school in 1940 gave him much pleasure. In 1917 he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. After leaving school in 1918 he joined the Royal Engineers, but he was demobilized shortly after being commissioned and went up to Trinity in January 1919. In the mathematical tripos he was placed in the first class in part one in 1919, and in 1921 he was a wrangler in part two, with distinction in his special subject in schedule B. In 1922 he was elected to a research fellowship at Trinity on the strength of a dissertation on surface areas, and in the following year was awarded a Smith's prize for an essay on 'Functions of intervals and the problem of area'.

In 1924 Burkill was appointed to the chair of pure mathematics in the University of Liverpool, where soon after his arrival he secured the appointment to his staff of A. S. Besicovitch, later himself a fellow of Trinity and Rouse Ball professor. On 9 August 1928 Burkill married Margareta (Greta) Braun [Margareta Burkill (1896-1984)]. They had a son and two daughters. A hint of the part that she was to play in his life is evident in the fact that from their marriage and at her insistence he was always known as Charles; hitherto he had been Charlie in the family, John outside it. In contrast to his completely English origins and upbringing, her background was comprehensively European. She was born on 1 December 1896, in Germany; her grandfather was an Austrian railway engineer, her father, Adolf Braun, a journalist in Germany, her mother a Russian, her mother's second husband an Englishman. Her schooling reflected this diversity: first in Germany and Russia, then at Harrogate Ladies' College and Newnham College, Cambridge (1917-20), where she read modern languages and economics. Her experiences at school in Nuremberg, where she was exposed to persecution because of her father's left-wing politics, bred in her a lasting sympathy with the underdog. This manifested itself both in her work for prisoners and refugees and later in the Burkills' joint efforts to improve the lot of those they saw as the underprivileged sections of Cambridge academic society, graduate students and visiting scholars. From 1933 onwards she helped to bring out of Germany and settle in England many hundreds of refugee children, and the Burkills themselves took into their family and assumed responsibility for the education of a German and an Austrian boy, who both went on to achieve positions in university departments of mathematics: (Gerd Edzard) Harry Reuter at Manchester, Durham, and Imperial College, London; Harry Burkill at Sheffield. Several other children became for a time in effect members of the Burkill family while being helped to build new lives.

In 1929 the Burkills had returned to Cambridge on Charles Burkill's appointment to a university lectureship in mathematics and election to a fellowship and lectureship at Peterhouse. He was also appointed assistant tutor to the redoubtable P. C. (Paul) Vellacott, and when Vellacott became headmaster of Harrow School in 1934 he succeeded to the senior tutorship, which he held until 1948 and again briefly during an emergency in 1953. During the Second World War he was one of the four resident fellows who were in effective charge of the college while Vellacott, now master, was away on war service. He also joined the university senior training corps with his demobilization rank of second lieutenant, rising by the end of the war to command the Royal Engineers section of the corps with the rank of major. Release from these administrative responsibilities allowed his creative energies to be redirected into mathematics, and the flow of his publications, arrested after 1936, resumed in 1948. Recognition of the quality of his work was forthcoming in the shape of an Adams prize for 1947-8 for an essay on integrals and trigonometric series, and election to fellowship of the Royal Society in 1953. In 1961 he was appointed university reader in mathematical analysis (becoming emeritus reader on his retirement in 1967).

The deep respect felt for Burkill by his colleagues at Peterhouse was strikingly demonstrated on his retirement. Sir Herbert Butterfield had announced his intention of retiring as master in 1968, and though under the existing statutes of the college Burkill's age debarred him from election, a rapid--not to say opportunistic--amendment made it possible to offer him the position. He was genuinely surprised by the offer, and accepted with some hesitation. In the event his tenure was notably successful. The Peterhouse statutes give the master the alternative title of keeper (custos), and it was as keeper of the college and its traditions that Burkill saw his role. Coming to office at a time of widespread student unrest, he took a far-sighted view of its eventual course, and devised effective machinery for consultation and dialogue with junior members without saddling the college with a statutory commitment to full participation in its government more easily incurred than shed. His relationship with the fellows was also based on consultation, and in particular on cultivating a spirit of trust and co-operation between the master and the tutors--something which his own relationship with Vellacott had taught him to appreciate. In the master's lodge the Burkills entertained generously, understanding its importance as a place where all sections of the society could meet on common ground. His memory was perpetuated in the college by the annual award of a Burkill prize for mathematics.

In 1948 Burkill had put on record a policy of keeping undergraduate numbers at about their existing level (about 180) and increasing the number of fellows and research students. The college adhered broadly to this intention; and when he became master Burkill acted to assist graduate students by securing the abolition of college fees, for which they received little or nothing in exchange, and providing more and better accommodation for both married and unmarried graduates. In the university context both the Graduate Society, which ultimately developed into the University Centre, and the Society for Visiting Scholars were established largely on Greta's initiative. The idea of the Society for Visiting Scholars had originated during a visit to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in 1947, when the Burkills were forcibly struck by the contrast between the hospitality on offer there and the lack of any such provision in Cambridge; that of the Graduate Society was inspired by the feeling of isolation which they had encountered in graduate students whom they had taken into their own home. Other related initiatives with which Greta was closely associated included the foundation of New Hall, Cambridge's third women's college, and of University (later Wolfson) College, for graduates and holders of university posts without college fellowships. She was also active in fund-raising for her own college, Newnham. In all these activities her restless drive and determination, and her often outspoken intolerance of bureaucracy and red tape, were complemented by her husband's imperturbable patience and solid judgement.

Burkill's mathematical publications were distinguished by quality rather than volume. His most important legacy was in the field of integration. Examples are his Adams prize work, in which he elegantly solved a long-standing problem in the theory of Fourier series, and his strikingly original contribution to the notoriously difficult notion of surface area; it was here that the 'Burkill integral' featured (though in fact it was not so called by him). In addition he produced a series of papers on less closely related topics and a number of textbooks which for many years ranked as standard works. 'These all display ... not only his mastery of the field but a lucidity and elegance that encourage his readers to appreciate the profound aesthetic quality of good mathematics' (Pitt, 59).

Brevity, precision, and conciseness were as characteristic of Burkill's conversation as of his written style, and his silences could be eloquent. He was an accomplished mimic. As a boy he had been given to practical joking, and though in later life his sense of humour was well under control it was never far from the surface. Fellows of Peterhouse were familiar with (and were indeed known to imitate) the slight sideways vibration of the body which betokened amusement and often preluded a mildly ironical or deflationary quip. The uncompromising austerity of the moral standards that he set himself and expected of others could make him sometimes appear hard; but although he begrudged what he thought unnecessary expenditure of money of which he was a trustee, from his own resources he was unfailingly generous to those in need. It was typical of him that on retiring as master in 1973 he became editor of the Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society on the grounds that his younger colleagues should be left free to concentrate on their research. The journal's high reputation when he eventually stood down reflected his own exacting standards.

In retirement Burkill continued to be active so long as his health permitted. Before the war, skiing had been a favourite recreation, and he was a keen walker until his eighties. Greta Burkill died of heart failure at their home, 2 Archway Court, Barton Road, Cambridge, on 14 June 1984. After her death Charles Burkill put in order her voluminous papers on her refugee work and secured their safe deposit in the Cambridge University Library. He died on 6 April 1993 in a Sheffield nursing home of bronchopneumonia and Alzheimer's disease. He was cremated and his ashes buried at the Hutcliffe Wood crematorium in Sheffield. He was survived by his son and by Harry Burkill, his two daughters and Harry Reuter having predeceased him.


J. C. Burkill, autobiographical notes, priv. coll.
H. Pitt, Memoirs FRS, 40 (1994), 43-59
The Independent (24 April 1993)
The Times (13 April 1993)
Daily Telegraph (14 April 1993)
W. O. Chadwick, 'Address at funeral of Greta Burkill', Cambridge Review (20 Nov 1984)
Cambridge News (3 June 1964) [Margareta Burkill]
The Times (14 July 1984) [Margareta Burkill]
[A. B. White and others], eds., Newnham College register, 1871-1971, 2nd edn, 1 (1979)
WWW, 1991-5
personal knowledge (2004)
private information (2004) [Harry Burkill, K. Chandrasekharan, H. Croft]
b. cert. [John Charles Burkill]
m. cert. [John Charles Burkill and Margareta née Braun]
d. certs. [Hugh Roberson Burkill, John Charles Burkill, Margareta Burkill]

priv. coll., autobiographical notes [typescript] |  CUL, papers of Mrs M. Burkill, Add. MS 8433

photograph, 1922, Trinity Cam.
W. Bird Studios, photograph, 1953?, RS; repro. in Pitt, Memoirs FRS, 42
M. Noakes, drawing, 1961, Peterhouse, Cambridge
J. Ward, oils, 1972, Peterhouse, Cambridge
G. Dubrovsky, photograph, 1984 (Margareta Burkill), repro. in Cambridge Review
photograph, repro. in The Times
photograph, repro. in The Independent
photograph (Margareta Burkill), repro. in Cambridge News

Wealth at death  
£330,582: probate, 9 July 1993, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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