James D Murray on Turnbull and Copson


In James D Murray's memoirs My Gift of Polio he refers to two of the mathematics professors who taught hi during his time at St Andrews. We reproduce that part below.


The Regius Professor of Mathematics in my first year, Professor H W Turnbull, was a distinguished mathematician, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and deeply religious. He started his lectures, which were always a complete shambles, with a prayer and got away with it since he was a truly gentle and kind man: he retired at the end of my first year.

He was succeeded in the professorship by Professor Edward Copson who could not have been more different, He had been a student in the University of Oxford and seemed never quite to have got over the fact that he had not got an Oxford college Fellowship and faculty position there. He was also never elected to the Royal Society which was much more discouraging. Even as students we saw how uusettled and anxious he was each year when the Royal Society Fellowship elections were announced. In contrast to Turnbull his lectures were paradigms of perfection and clarity, He appeared at five past the hour and started writing on the blackboard immediately, only rarely looking at the class. He finished his lecture at exactly five to the hour and immediately left. Students never asked questions in those days; it was simply not done. Copson firmly believed that if you were good enough to get a First Class Honours in St Andrews you should then try to go to the University of Oxford and take another undergraduate degree but only if you were of the right social class.


JOC/EFR March 2020