William Gilmour Guthrie M.A. (Edin. and Cantab.), Ph.D. (St Andrews)
H A BrückWilliam Gilmour Guthrie, who died in Edinburgh on 15 September 1978, came from a distinguished Scottish family. His father was the late Rev. W. A. Guthrie, M.A., D.D., Minister of Fountainbridge Church, Edinburgh. Dr Guthrie was the brother of the late Hon. Lord Guthrie, Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland, and of Professor J. R. Guthrie who until 1977 held the Chair of Christian Education in Emmanuel College, Toronto, Canada.
Dr Guthrie was born on 2 September 1905 at Foulford Schoolhouse, Cowdenbeath, Fife, where his father was then Headmaster. He was educated at Broughton Secondary School, Edinburgh, where he was Dux Medallist of both the Intermediate and Secondary Departments. In 1922 he was awarded the Bruce Bursary with which he went to Edinburgh University to study Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. He graduated four years later gaining First Class Honours in both subjects and being awarded the Napier Medal and Gadgil Prize for taking first place amongst the honours graduates of that year.
From Edinburgh University Guthrie went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Drummond postgraduate scholarship to continue his mathematical studies. He was a Scholar of the College and became Wrangler in Part II of the Mathematical Tripos of 1929. In the same year he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Mathematics and three years later Carnegie Teaching Fellow in Applied Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, both at St Andrews University. There he also obtained his Ph.D. degree with a thesis on pressure effects in the secondary spectrum of hydrogen.
In 1933 Guthrie left Scotland for Northern Ireland where he had been appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Magee University College, Londonderry. The next 35 years were probably the happiest of his life. He became deeply involved in the life of the College and when he was elected Bursar of Faculty in 1945 he became not only responsible for a great variety or financial transactions, but he also took over many of the duties of a tutorial adviser. He played a major part in prolonged negotiations which led to increased Government support for the College.
Magee College had for a long time been affiliated to Trinity College, Dublin. In the post-war period the Arts Faculty of Magee separated from the Faculty of Theology and gained its affiliation with Queen's University, Belfast. When the time came to elect a new President of the College Dr Guthrie was the obvious choice. With his actual appointment as Principal in October 1958 began a particularly flourishing period in the history of the College. Numbers of staff and students increased substantially and a personal friendship with both the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin and the President of Queen's University ensured a happy cooperation between Magee and those two universities. Through a wide range of activities inside and outside the College Dr Guthrie soon achieved a very prominent position in the intellectual and social life of Northern Ireland.
All seemed well when the College celebrated its Centenary in 1965. However, that was the time when the question of the foundation of a second university in Ulster came up for discussion in the House of Commons and when the Lockwood Committee was sent to Ireland to investigate the question of a suitable place for the proposed new foundation. It came as a considerable surprise to many when the decision was announced that the new university was not to be centred at Magee College in Londonderry, but was to be established at Coleraine, a town on the river Bann some fifty miles northwest of Belfast.
It is easy to understand that this unexpected decision brought deep disappointment to Dr Guthrie. He felt it to be impossible for him to continue in his position in the new circumstances and he decided to seek early retirement. He left his College and Northern Ireland on 30 September 1968, the day before the new University of Ulster was officially opened at Coleraine. He had had the satisfaction that in the summer of that year at the General Assembly of the Irish Presbyterian Church the Moderator and a congregation of some two thousand members gave him a standing ovation in recognition of the work which he had done for Magee College in the 35 years he had spent there.
When he left Londonderry Dr Guthrie moved back to Scotland living the ten years of his retirement in Edinburgh. Here he spent much of his time on organ-playing which had been one of his great interests from the early days of his childhood. He played in churches and at home where, as in Londonderry, he had installed an organ of his own. Being a Fellow of the Trinity College of Music, London, and an Associate of the Royal College of Organists he was invited to become a member of the Edinburgh Organists' Society and for almost three years he acted as organist of North Merchiston Church.
Another strong interest of Dr Guthrie's was the field of Astronomy. He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1950 and he was the Founder and first President of the Derry Centre of the Irish Astronomical Society in whose affairs he took a very active interest. Later he joined the Edinburgh Astronomical Society and he was very gratified when his son Bruce became a professional astronomer and joined the staff of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.
Throughout all the achievements and disappointments of his life William Guthrie preserved his gentle and very unassuming disposition which originated from his strong Christian faith. He will be missed by many friends and particularly by his widow and family to whom goes the sincere sympathy of this Society of which he was elected a Fellow as early as 1933.
The writer is deeply indebted to Mrs Th. Guthrie for biographical details which she kindly placed at his disposal.
William Gilmour Guthrie was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 March 1933, his proposers being Herbert Stanley Allen, Herbert Westren Turnbull, David Jack, Edward Thomas Copson. This obituary, written by H A Brück, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1979, pages 35-36.