Gerald James Whitrow
Kimmeridge, Dorset, England
Merton, London, England
BiographyGerald Whitrow was the son of George William Whitrow (1875-1953) and Emily Watkins (1877-1956). George Whitrow, born in Kimmeridge on 28 July 1875 to the shale miner Henry Whitrow and his wife Maria Foot, became a farmer and, at the time Gerald was born, was farming near Kimmeridge. Emily Watkins was born on 22 July 1877. Gerald was the elder of his parents' two sons.
Around 1916 the family moved to Clapham, London when George Whitrow began working in Harrods. Soon after the move, Gerald began his schooling at Wix's Lane School. Wix's Lane marked the boundary between Battersea and Clapham and, on 27 April 1903, the London School Board had opened a school on the Battersea side of the lane. Gerald :-
... was a very clever child, and at the age of six preferred reading books to playing games.While still studying at the primary school in Wix's Lane, he continued with a very mature attitude to learning :-
His abilities were in evidence at a precocious age since by the age of nine he was delivering lectures to his family on Sunday evenings.He won a London County Council scholarship to the famous independent school, Christ's Hospital, situated south of Horsham in West Sussex and entered the school as a boarder on 19 September 1923. Theodore William Chaundy (1889-1966), who held a lectureship at Christ Church College, Oxford, examined the pupils of Christ's Hospital in mathematics. Whitrow impressed Chaundy so much that he arranged for Whitrow to receive a scholarship to study at Christ Church College, Oxford. Whitrow graduated from Christ's Hospital on 29 July 1930 and, in October of that year, began his university studies of mathematics at Christ College.
Chaundy became Whitrow's tutor at Christ Church College and advised him throughout his undergraduate career. W L Ferrar wrote "As a tutor [Chaudry] was a great inspiration to the good mathematician," and certainly Whitrow was outstanding so was inspired by Chaundy. Although Whitrow studied a broad range of mathematical topics, his love was directed more towards the pure side rather than in applications. This, however, changed in January 1933 when Chaudry advised him to attend E A Milne's lectures on relativity. He was immediately fascinated by Milne's lectures and, after graduating with a B.Sc. in 1933 he was awarded a Senior University Studentship to undertake research for a D.Phil. advised by Milne.
Whitrow began publishing papers even before graduating with his first degree. His first paper was The Importance of the History of Mathematics in Relation to the Study of Mathematical Technique which appeared in The Mathematical Gazette in October 1932. It is interesting to note that the ideas he put forward in this paper were ones which became fundamental in his lifelong mathematical output. The paper begins:-
Glaisher, I believe, once said that no subject loses more than mathematics by any attempt to dissociate it from its history. It is still customary, however, in schools and most universities to regard the history of mathematics as an "extra" outside the ordinary student's syllabus - indeed it is usually treated as an exotic luxury. The point I would like to emphasise is that while the primary aim of the tyro should be the mastery of technique, yet in most cases this mastery is liable to become a mere mechanical acquirement unless it is accompanied by some appreciation of the cultural significance of the "Queen of the Sciences". A number of excellent treatises, theses and textbooks have been written on mathematical history. With very few exceptions these are absolutely distinct from the technical treatises, theses and textbooks. Today we really require a series of books carefully planned to bridge the gap between these two classes - books not designed to usurp the functions of any particular books now in use but to supplement them.Whitrow set about trying to 'bridge the gap' with his second paper, Continuity and Irrational Number, which appeared in The Mathematical Gazette in July 1933. It begins:-
In a previous article I have outlined my conception of the role of history in the exposition of mathematical technique. In this article I attempt to provide my bare thesis with a respectable clothing of practicability. The treatment of Number and Continuity which follows is a short and very sketchy historical supplement to the technical treatment of the same subjects in, say, the earlier chapters of Hardy's 'Pure Mathematics'.Although Whitrow only began attending Milne's lectures on relativity in January 1933, already by 19 March of that year he had submitted the paper A derivation of the Lorentz formulae to The Quarterly Journal of Mathematics. It begins:-
In a recent paper Narliker has given a new derivation of the Lorentz formulae of special relativity. It may therefore not be inopportune to communicate the present note which gives a derivation of the Lorentz formulae from a different starting-point. The considerations underlying the derivation are of a more physical character.The method used by Whitrow in this paper had been suggested by Milne and, based on ideas in lectures given by Milne beginning in October 1933, Whitrow wrote On equivalent observers which he submitted to The Quarterly Journal of Mathematics on 21 January 1935. Later in 1935 Whitrow was elected to a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship in mathematics at Merton College. He held this scholarship for two years but, in 1936, he was appointed as a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church College. His application for the position had been strongly supported by Milne who described him in his reference as "one of the most original natural philosophers of our time." He published a number of single author papers and three joint publications with Milne in 1938, namely: On the meaning of uniform time, and the kinematic equivalence of the extra-galactic nebulae; On a linear equivalence discussed by L Page; and Physical Sciences: Reversibility of the Equations of Classical Dynamics.
Whitrow was awarded his D.Phil. in 1939 for a thesis on kinematic relativity. This thesis contained work already published in two 1936 papers: Kinematical Relativity (I): Relatively Stationary Observers; and Kinematical Relativity (II): Equivalent Observers in Uniform Relative Motion in Skew Trajectories.
The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 changed the course of Whitrow's career which, almost certainly, would otherwise have remained at the University of Oxford. In 1940 he left his position as a lecturer at Christ Church and worked as a Scientific Officer for the Ministry of Supply :-
His work was on defence research, including ballistics, and he worked at Fort Halstead (near Sevenoaks) and Cambridge. While in his Portugal Street digs in Cambridge, he had a lucky escape when they were destroyed during the only bombing raid on the city.When the war ended in 1945, Whitrow returned to his university career but not back at Oxford, rather he was appointed as an assistant lecturer at Imperial College, London. After one year in this post he was promoted to lecturer. On 17 August 1946 he married Annie Magda Mostel. Magda had been born in Vienna on 6 June 1914 to the clerk Rudolf Mostel (1881-1954) and his wife Irma Türki (1889-1955). She was a refugee who had been exempted from internment on 19 October 1939. At that time she was working as a librarian for Woodall Duckham Construction Ltd., an engineering company covering a large range of engineering projects from chemical to oil, energy and construction situated at Uplands, Epsom Road, Gilford. The exemption certificate gives her address at that time as Flat 3, Waterden Road, Gilford and her normal occupation as foreign correspondent. Whitrow :-
... and Magda lived first in Battersea and from 1967 in Wimbledon. The marriage was remarkably happy and their house a hospitable location for students, friends and colleagues to meet, talk and eat.Let us note that Magda Whitrow became an outstanding bibliographer and historian of science. She published books and articles such as: Isis Cumulative Bibliography (Vols 1, 2 1971; Vol 3 1976); A classification scheme for the history of science, medicine, and technology (1978); Condorcet: A pioneer in information retrieval? (1982); Wagner-Jauregg and fever therapy (1990); Bibliographical developments in the history of science (1992); Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857-1940) (1993); and Theodor Meynert (1833-1892): His life and poetry (1996).
Gerald Whitrow remained at Imperial College for the rest of his career. He was a prolific author with over 100 papers and several books published during these years. The first of these books was The Structure of the Universe (1949). William McCrea writes in the review :-
Historians and philosophers of science may perhaps look to Dr Whitrow's book to provide an account of the present state of the purely scientific side of his subject, rather than to contribute to their own special fields. It may be said at once that he has given a brilliant description of the astronomical evidence concerning the structure, behaviour and ages of the galaxies and concerning the structure of the whole system of galaxies that constitutes the observable universe. He has given also an extraordinarily able (non-mathematical) description of current general cosmological theory, with special prominence for the ideas of Eddington and Milne, together with some account of more detailed matters such as galactic kinematics and dynamics.For further extracts from reviews of this and other books written by Whitrow, see THIS LINK.
Dr Whitrow is, however, particularly well qualified to write also upon both the historical and philosophical aspects of his subject: readers specially interested in these aspects will be glad to find that his presentation keeps them so well in view. In fact, even the professional historian of science will get a fresh perspective in his own domain from the material brought together by the author in his first three chapters, which give a historical account of the exploration of the universe and of ideas of space and time.
These other books include: (with G O Jones and J Rotblat) Atoms and the Universe (1956); The Structure and Evolution of the Universe (1959); The Structure and Evolution of the Universe - An Introduction to Cosmology (1959), The Natural Philosophy of Time (1961); The Nature of Time (1973); and Time in History: The Evolution of Our General Awareness of Time and Temporal Perspective (1988). Whitrow also edited, and contributed to, Einstein: The man and his achievement (1967). Heilbron, however, is critical of attempts to explain highly technical ideas to a general reader, writing in the review  that the aim of the book was:-
... the conveyance of some notion of Einstein's scientific achievements to a large and heterogeneous audience. This little book is not notably successful as an attempt to popularise science. Despite the evident efforts of Drs Whitrow, Sciama and Bonnor, who prepared the summary statements, their necessarily extremely abbreviated accounts can carry no very clear idea of Einstein's work to those unacquainted with relativity and quantum theory. The popularisation of modern physics presents very severe difficulties, and it would appear both ungrateful and unfair to fault those who respond to the challenge for failing to resolve them all. Yet one may well ask whether attempts like these broadcasts do not achieve precisely the opposite of the objective they seek. Over-compression in explaining relativity and quantum physics to the non-physicist may tend more to enhance than to dispel their mystery.Let us return to a description of Whitrow's career. He was promoted from Lecturer to Reader in Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, in 1951. In 1972 he became a professor when given the personal chair of History and Applications of Mathematics.
We have mentioned Whitrow's research contributions, but he contributed in many other ways :-
But it was not only in research and writing that Whitrow brought credit to the college. He was an excellent lecturer, with his clear intonation matched by clarity of exposition. Furthermore, he took part in the running of the college and university, serving on a number of committees. Between 1972 and 1974 he was College Orator, where his knowledge of Latin was put to good use.Whitrow made major contributions to the Royal Astronomical Society. He was elected a Fellow on 14 June 1940, served two terms on the Society's Council and was Vice-President of the Society in 1965-67. He played a large role in the reorganisation of the Society's library and was Chairman of the Society's Library Committee from the early 1960s to 1975. Following his death, the Royal Astronomical Society founded the Gerald Whitrow Lecture and it was first awarded in 2001. The lecture:-
... is given every two years by a distinguished and eloquent speaker on any topic in cosmology, including its philosophy. The speaker may be based in the UK or overseas. The lecture is delivered at an Ordinary (A&G) Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society.He was a staunch supporter of the Royal Astronomical Society's Dining Club :-
He was elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society monthly Dining Club on 13 January 1950 and two years later became its Treasurer (that is, its Executive Officer), a post he held until 1970, a record equalled only by George Dollond (1774-1852). In this capacity Whitrow edited the third volume of the Records of the Club. Serving as President between 1978 and 1986, in total he attended 347 dinners, failing by just three to equal the record set by James Glaisher (1848-1928). At the Club's dinner held during the IAU last year in Manchester, those present drank a silent toast to his memory.The history of science played a large role in Whitrow's life starting in his undergraduate days. He attended the 'International Congress of the History of Science' in London in 1931 while still in the first year of his undergraduate studies. He was an early member of the British Society for the History of Science which was founded in 1947, served several terms on its Council, and was elected President for 1968-70. He was also an enthusiastic member of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science having been involved in its establishment :-
In 1948 a group of historians, philosophers and scientists met at the University College London to discuss the formation of a Philosophy of Science Group. A Provisional Committee consisting of Alistair Crombie, Herbert Dingle, Karl Popper, F I G Rawlins, and Gerald Whitrow met to formulate the statement of aims, writing, "The purpose of the Group is to study the logic and method of science as well as of the various special sciences, including the social sciences. The main emphasis is upon an approach through the various special sciences to the philosophy of science." The Group was originally approved as a group affiliated with British Society for the History of Science, and the first annual meeting was held on 15 November 1948 at University College London. In January of 1959 the Philosophy of Science Group was reconstituted as the British Society for the Philosophy of Science ...Whitrow was also a major figure in the founding of the British Society for the History of Mathematics. The formation of a society for the history of mathematics was discussed by John Dubbey and Arthur Morley when they met in the buffet at St Pancras Station, London and decided to convene an open meeting. They :-
... approached Gerald Whitrow, who gave his enthusiastic support and agreed to chair this exploratory meeting. This took place at Thames Polytechnic [now the University of Greenwich] on 2 July 1971 with, to the surprise and delight of the organisers, over fifty participants.Whitrow served as the first President of the British Society for the History of Mathematics in 1971-74.
It is worth noting that, as an historian, Whitrow was interested in the background to the research problems he was studying. In this he showed great expertise but, in some ways, it was a restricted view of the history of mathematics as this review by Dirk Struik of one of Whitrow's last papers, Why did mathematics begin to take off in the sixteenth century? (1988), shows. Struik, a renowned historian of mathematics, writes:-
The question in the title of this paper is, according to the author, "one of the great puzzles in the history of mathematics." He points to the novel art of printing, used by Regiomontanus and Pacioli (who was influenced by Leonardo Fibonacci), to the impact made by Cardan's "Ars magna" and the work of Viète, setting algebra "on the path by which it eventually supplanted geometry." Since the author hardly mentions the many demands of the traders, bankers, surveyors, engineers and navigators in the flourishing mercantile towns, it is no wonder that he concludes that "why sixteenth century mathematics should have this remarkable outcome instead of petering out is far from clear."On 21 October 1987, to commemorate the tercentenary of the publication of Newton's Principia, Whitrow delivered the public lecture Newton's role in the history of mathematics in the Mathematics Department of Imperial College London. His lecture was published by the Royal Society of London as a 22-page paper. Here is Whitrow's conclusions:-
Newton has often been ranked with Archimedes and Gauss as one of the three greatest mathematicians of all time. Like them he was equally outstanding in both pure and applied mathematics. Also like them he had an insatiable love of making lengthy numerical computations. For example, in the intoxication of youth he calculated several logarithms to 55 places! He and Gauss also resembled each other in their reluctance to publish. There was no public cry of 'Eureka!' from either of them.After Whitrow died in June 2000, there was a private funeral after which his ashes were scattered on the Christ Church Meadow. Frank James writes :-
Newton's role in the history of mathematics was to be the outstanding successor to Descartes. The expression of a curve by its algebraic equation, an idea which we owe to the great Frenchman, led Newton to the wider concept of the explicit function of a single variable, as the result of a technique which disentangled the two coordinates from their implicit equation and exhibited the one as a function of the other in a finite or infinite series. The generality and efficiency of this mathematical process is essentially due to Newton. The first of the fundamental discoveries by which he transformed mathematics was that of expansion into infinite series and his recognition of the validity of this way of expressing a function, first revealed to him as early as 1664 in his binomial theorem. He fully understood the need for a proof of convergence, even if he did not quite attain modern standards of rigour.
His next major advance was to recognise that quadrature (or integration) and tangency (generalised as differentiation) are inverse operations. The ingenious ad hoc geometrical methods of his predecessors were thus replaced by purely analytical techniques of wide-ranging application. But his crowning achievement was the mathematical theory of universal gravitation presented in the 'Principia'. Its publication just 300 years ago, on 5 July 1687, inaugurated the fundamental branch of science which we now call mathematical physics.
A moving memorial service was held at Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, where colleagues and former students paid tribute to his memory. Whitrow was a man of complete integrity, who was always totally dedicated to whatever he had in hand and courteous to a fault. His memory was prodigious and he could, until his last few weeks, recollect events of 60 years before (such as the 1931 Congress) with astonishing clarity. He will be sadly missed by friends and colleagues from many academic disciplines.Whitrow's wife Magda died in London on 1 February 2011. In 2013 the Commission on Bibliography and Documentation of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology/Division of History of Science and Technology founded the Neu-Whitrow Bibliography Prize to be awarded every four years to an individual or team for creating the most innovative research tool for managing, documenting and analysing sources within the history of science and technology. It is named after the outstanding bibliographers John Neu of the University of Wisconsin, and Magda Whitrow.
- W B B, Review: The Structure and Evolution of the Universe. Revised edition, by G J Whitrow, Science Progress (1933-) 48 (190) (1960), 358-359.
- J A Bennett, Review: Time in History: The Evolution of Our General Awareness of Time and Temporal Perspective, by G J Whitrow, The British Journal for the History of Science 23 (2) (1990), 252.
- M Black, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, Scientific American 206 (4) (1962), 179-185.
- H D, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, Science Progress (1933-) 50 (199) (1962), 512-513.
- K J Dykeman, Review: Time in History: The Evolution of Our General Awareness of Time and Temporal Perspective, by G J Whitrow, CrossCurrents 39 (2) (1989), 225- 228.
- J Fucini, Review: The Nature of Time, by G J Whitrow, The Science Teacher 40 (7) (1973), 52.
- R M Gale, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 23 (2) (1962), 279-281.
- R H Garstang, Whitrow, Gerald James, Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (Springer, New York, 2007).
- F C Haber, Review: Time in History: The Evolution of Our General Awareness of Time and Temporal Perspective, by G J Whitrow, The American Historical Review 95 (4) (1990), 1156.
- R Harré, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, The Mathematical Gazette 48 (363) (1964), 128-129.
- A W Haslett, Review: Atoms and the Universe, by G O Jones, J Rotblat and G J Whitrow, The British Medical Journal 1 (4979) (1956), 1345.
- C A Haywood, Review: Atoms and the Universe, by G O Jones, J Rotblat and G J Whitrow, The Mathematical Gazette 41 (338) (1957), 304-305.
- J L Heilbron, Review: Einstein. The Man and His Achievement (1967), edited by G J Whitrow, The British Journal for the History of Science 4 (2) (1968), 195-196.
- M Heller, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time (Second Edition), by G J Whitrow, The Review of Metaphysics 37 (2) (1983), 432-434.
- C W Kilmister, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time (Second Edition), by G J Whitrow, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 34 (2) (1983), 200-201.
- G T Kneebone, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, Philosophy 39 (147) (1964), 86-88.
- F A J L James, Gerald James Whitrow, Astronomy and Geophysics 42 (2) (2001), 35-36.
- F A J L James, Gerald James Whitrow (1912-2000), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
- W H McCrea, Review: The Structure of the Universe, by G J Whitrow, The Mathematical Gazette 34 (308) (1950), 148-150.
- W H McCrea, Review: The Structure of the Universe, by G J Whitrow, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1 (1) (1950), 75-76.
- W H McCrea, Review: The Structure and Evolution of the Universe - An Introduction to Cosmology, by G J Whitrow, The Mathematical Gazette 44 (350) (1960), 314.
- M W O, Review: The Structure of the Universe, by G J Whitrow, Science Progress (1933-) 38 (150) (1950), 358-359.
- Obituary, Gerald James Whitrow, Daily Telegraph (18 June 2000).
- Obituary, Gerald James Whitrow, The Times (23 June 2000).
- R Schlegel, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, Isis 54 (3) (1963), 410-411.
- D W Sciama, Review: The Structure and Evolution of the Universe. Revised edition, by G J Whitrow, Mathematical Reviews MR0122530 (22 #13254).
- L Sklar, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time (Second Edition), by G J Whitrow, Mathematical reviews R0122530 (22 #13254).
- J J C Smart, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, The Philosophical Review 72 (3) (1963), 405-407.
- C J Smith, Review: Atoms and the Universe (Second Edition), by G O Jones, J Rotblat and G J Whitrow, Science Progress (1933-) 51 (201) (1963), 126.
- H Spencer Jones, Review: Atoms and the Universe, by G O Jones, J Rotblat and G J Whitrow, Science Progress (1933-) 45 (177) (1957), 138-139.
- U W Steinlin, Review: Atoms and the Universe, by G O Jones, J Rotblat and G J Whitrow, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 69 (409) (1957), 370.
- C E Stephens, Review: Time in History: The Evolution of Our General Awareness of Time and Temporal Perspective, by G J Whitrow, Isis 81 (2) (1990), 312-313.
- J L Synge, Review: The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G J Whitrow, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 13 (50) (1962), 177-180.
- The British Society for the Philosophy of Science.
- E Whittaker, Review: The Structure of the Universe, by G J Whitrow, Philosophy 25 (95) (1950), 374-375.
- W P D Wightman, Review: The Structure and Evolution of the Universe - An Introduction to Cosmology, by G J Whitrow, The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-) 12 (47) (1962), 189-190.
- R Wilson and R Flood, The British Society for the History of Mathematics, Newsletter of the European Mathematical Society 87 (2013), 34-37.
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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2021
Last Update September 2021