Sylvia Winifred Skan

Quick Info

15 August 1897
Richmond, Surrey, England
10 June 1972
Twickenham, Middlesex, England

Sylvia Skan was an English applied mathematician who worked on fluid dynamics and aerodynamics. For most of her career, she worked for the Aerodynamics Department of the National Physical Laboratory. She wrote many papers and the two volume book Handbook for computers.


Let us say right at the beginning that we have not been able to find any information about Sylvia Skan except data from official documents such as the census and from papers she wrote or contributed to. If anyone has further information, please let us know so that we can write a "proper" biography.

Sylvia Skan's father was Sidney Alfred Skan (30 August 1870-19 December 1939), born in Bickenhill, Warwickshire. He was a botanist who worked at the Royal Gardens at Kew and later as a civil servant for the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. Sylvia's mother was Jane Alkins, born in Bakamoor, Staffordshire on 5 April 1873. Sylvia was the eldest of her parents' five children. She had a younger brother Douglas Alkins Skan (1899-1978) born on 13 December 1899 in Richmond, Surrey, England. He became a medical doctor and went to Africa where he served in Tanganyika and Nyasaland. A 1935 Medical Directory lists him as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons; a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, London 1924; a Diploma in Tropical Medicine Liverpool 1925; Diploma in Tropical Hygiene 1925; and a Medical Officer in the East African Medical Service. He married Kathleen Edith Royston in 1926.

Sylvia also had two younger sisters, Mabel Irene Skan born 30 June 1902 in Richmond, Surrey, England, and Isabel Lilian Skan born 14 May 1903 in Kew, Surrey, England. On 9 August 1903 Mabel Irene Skan was baptised in Kew, Surrey. At this time her father Sidney Alfred Skan was a botanist at the Royal Gardens. Mabel Skan became an assistant compiler for the Royal Botanical Gardens. Isabel Lilian Skan was baptised in Kew on the same day. Mabel died on 8 October 1982 in Twickenham, Middlesex while Isabel married Leslie Pope in 1948 and died in January 1991 in Hounslow, London. Sylvia's youngest sibling was her brother Lawrence Gilbert Skan, born 21 Feb 1914, and baptised at St Mary the Virgin, Twickenham, England. He became a poultry farmer and died on 9 July 1992.

At the time of the 1901 census, when Sylvia Skan was three years old, the family were living in Richmond, Surrey, the town of her birth but, ten years later at the time of the 1911 census, on 2 April, they were living at 37 Holmes Road, Twickenham, Middlesex, England. We have not been able to find any information about her education, but she clearly learnt mathematics and physics to a very high level for by 1923 she was working in the Aerodynamics Department of the National Physical Laboratory and published the paper, Biplane investigation with R.A.F., written jointly with William Lewis Cowley, A G Gadd and L J Jones. We can deduce that she had no university degree since her co-authors list their degrees on the paper while she does not give any degrees. We note that this does not necessarily mean that she did not attend Oxford University or Cambridge University since women at that time were not formally awarded degrees. Another fact about her education which we can deduce is that she must have learnt several languages for later in life she translated French, German and Russian papers (see below).

Skan worked her whole career in the Aerodynamics Department of the National Physical Laboratory. In 1930 she was living with her parents Sidney Alfred Skan and Jane Skan, together with her sisters Mabel Irene Skan and Isabel Lilian Skan at Cole Park Road, Twickenham. But in the following year she was living on her own in a house at 88a Wellington Road, Spelthorne, Surrey. In 1936 she was still living at 88a Wellington Road but by 1939 she was living on her own at 20 Walpole Court, Twickenham, Middlesex, England. She remained at that address for the rest of her life. In this 1939 record she is listed as an assistant (Mechanical Work and Translation) in the Aerodynamics Department of the National Physical Laboratory. Let us now look briefly at some of her translating contributions.

Although Skan must have been working on translations at least as early as 1939, the first that we have found is in 1946, in fact we have found three German works which were translated by Skan in that year. These were Solution of Possio's integral equation for an aerofoil oscillating harmonically in a compressible medium by reduction to a system of linear equations by Martin Eichler with Skan's translation from German to English appearing in March 1946. In the same month, Skan's translation from German to English of The numerical solution of Possio's integral equation for an oscillating aerofoil in an two-dimensional subsonic stream by Th Schade appeared. We should note the speed of her translations, for The air forces for the harmonically oscillating aerofoil in a compressible medium at subsonic speeds (two-dimensional problem) by F Dietze was published in German in August 1946 with Skan's English translation being dated December 1946. In 1948 Skan's translation of the 1947 Russian work Wing theory in unsteady flow by Aleksandr Ivanovich Nekrasov was published. The French paper Flow in the neighbourhood of the apex of a highly swept wing at moderate incidence by R Legendré was published in La recherche Aeronautique in 1952 with Skan's translation dated 1953. Another French work, On the effect of orifice size on static pressure reading at different Reynolds numbers by A K Ray, was published in 1956 with Skan's translation appearing in the same year.

We gain a little information about Skan's other contributions from the acknowledgement in W Prichard Jones's paper The Oscillating Aerofoil in Subsonic Flow (1953) in which he writes:-
Acknowledgment. - The numerical work required for this report was done by Miss Sylvia W Skan of the Aerodynamics Division, N.P.L.
W Prichard Jones was a colleague of Skan's in the Aerodynamics Department of the National Physical Laboratory.

Although Skan's contributions here were for the numerical work, her contributions to other papers must have been much more substantial for she was a joint author. In fact we have found 17 papers or reports with Skan as a joint author, the first being in in 1923 with the last paper being in 1960 written jointly with Newby Curle who went on to be appointed Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of St Andrews and a colleague of the authors of this biography [EFR and JJOC]. One article which we must single out for comment was Some approximate solutions of the boundary layer equations (1930) which Skan co-authored with V M Falkner. This contains what is now known as the 'Falkner-Skan boundary layer'. This boundary layer generalises the Blasius boundary layer and occurs when a flat plate is inserted into a flow, not parallel to the direction of flow. They thus solved the Prandtl problem with a power law pressure gradient with self- similar solutions.

For more information about these 17 papers and reports, including abstracts or reviews of some of them, see THIS LINK.

The only single authored work by Skan which we have found is the two volume book Handbook for computers published by the National Physical Laboratory, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, in 1954. The review by Eugene Isaacson states [2]:-
A complete introduction to the elementary mathematics and to some of the techniques of computation that are required of junior computers is clearly presented with many illustrative examples. These chapters would constitute the basis for an on-the-job training program for an audience with limited mathematical background. The mathematical topics range from the solution of quadratic equations to an introduction to the calculus. The numerical techniques that are described range from finding square roots to numerical differentiation and integration of functions. Throughout there is the necessary emphasis on the numerical checks and the arrangement of work sheets which insures accuracy in a computation laboratory.

References (show)

  1. AERADE Reports Archive, Cranfield University.
  2. E Isaacson, Review: Handbook for computers, by Sylvia W Skan, Mathematical Reviews MR0074087 (17,535b).
  3. Research Reports and Memoranda, Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology.
  4. Research Reports and Memoranda, Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology.
  5. Various official documents on

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Sylvia Skan:

  1. Sylvia Skan's papers and reports

Other websites about Sylvia Skan:

  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry
  3. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update November 2019