David Crighton

An influential career in applied mathematics, spurred by a schoolmaster who said he would be no good

As head of the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics in Cambridge since 1991, and as Master of Jesus College since 1997, David Crighton carried a considerable burden of responsibility, and he did so with a remarkable combination of authority, wisdom and energy.

Tragically, he was struck by cancer early in 1999 when at the height of his powers; in the face of increasing difficulties, and to the admiration of his colleagues, he continued to work at full stretch, relinquishing none of his heavy responsibilities. Thirty-six hours before his death he was deep in discussion with Professor Stephen Hawking.

Crighton's speciality was the field of aeroacoustics, in which he followed in the footsteps of Sir James Lighthill, who had established the fundamental principles of the subject in the 1950s. Crighton was one of a group who applied these principles to a range of problems of great practical importance in aerodynamics, with particular attention to the issue of noise control in aircraft design. He particularly studied the problem of noise generation by the high-speed jets from aeroengines, by rotating propellers and fans, and by flow over parts of the aircraft fuselage and wing flaps, of crucial importance during aircraft take-off and landing.

David George Crighton was born in Llandudno, to which his pregnant mother had been evacuated from London during the Blitz. He was educated at Watford Grammar School, and enjoyed relating in later life that his decision to study mathematics was triggered by a master's comment that "whatever else, he will never be any good at mathematics".

Thus challenged, he read mathematics at St John's College, Cambridge, where he played rugby six times a week but nevertheless emerged as a Wrangler (with a first) in 1964. After two years as a lecturer at the Woolwich Polytechnic, he became research assistant to John Ffowcs Williams (now Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) at Imperial College, taking his doctorate in 1969.

Within a further five years, Crighton had written or part-written a series of 18 influential papers on jet noise, scattering of sound waves, acoustic beaming and reflection from wave-bearing surfaces, and similar topics.

His publications in this field continued unabated throughout his subsequent career, and diversified into other areas such as the generation of sound and vibration by underwater structures (which is important in naval architecture and for submarine detection); intense sound waves, as generated by supersonic aircraft, and the manner in which shock waves develop when these propagate over large distances.

In 1974, at just 33, Crighton was appointed to the chair of applied mathematics at Leeds, where his organisational and administrative talents were soon evident. The Leeds department was modest in its achievements and expectations when he arrived, but under his influence it was transformed over the next 12 years into one of the top departments of its kind in the country. Crighton's successive spells as head of department, chairman of school, and chairman of the science board (effectively Dean), left in every case indelible marks of his imagination and effectiveness, tough decisions being invariably coupled with a genuine concern for the individuals affected.

Crighton was elected to his Cambridge chair in 1986, and there his boundless energy and talents were to find full scope. Five years later he became head of his department and immediately took steps to establish new professorships, first in the rapidly emerging field of nonlinear dynamics, then in solid mechanics. The department flourished, and was awarded a five-star grade in the 1996 research assessment.

Crighton played a key role in planning the department's impending move from its antiquated buildings in Silver Street to the new Centre for Mathematical Sciences now under construction in West Cambridge, and in the massive fundraising this entailed.

Since 1979 Crighton had been an associate editor of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, 350-page volumes of which appear every two weeks, and from 1996 onwards he gradually took over the editorship from George Batchelor (Obituary, April 12). Crighton was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1993, and for two years (1994-96) he took on the additional burden of editing the Proceedings (A) of the Royal Society.

Crighton was a member of the Committee of Euromech from 1984, and as its chairman was instrumental in effecting its transformation in 1993 into the European Mechanics Society and in expanding the range of conferences it promotes on fluid and solid mechanics. He was president of this society until 1997, and then continued to serve as vice-president. He was elected a member of Academia Europaea in 1999, in recognition as much for his services to European science as for his own considerable achievements in research.

Within Cambridge, Crighton was a Fellow of St John's from 1986 until his appointment as Master of Jesus in 1997. As head of his college he governed with diplomatic skill, great good humour, and a selfless concern for the members and staff at all levels.

Outside science, Crighton's great passion was music. The operas of Wagner were a particular enthusiasm. He never missed an opportunity to attend the Bayreuth Festival, and would always seek to incorporate at least one opera in each of his many lecturing engagements around the world. A final achievement, that gave him great personal satisfaction and came just a few weeks before his death, was to conduct the college orchestra in a moving performance of the Overture to Tannhauser.

The piano was another love. While at Leeds he became a great admirer of the formidable Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, who had been on the jury of the city's International Piano Competition in 1984. When they met in the breakfast queue at a Leningrad hotel they struck up a friendship that lasted until her death in 1993. More recently he had championed the Slovenian pianist Dobravka Tomsic.

He is survived by his wife Johanna, whom he married in 1986, and by a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.

David Crighton, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cambridge and Master of Jesus College, was born on November 15, 1942. He died of cancer on April 12 aged 57.

The Times, 2000