Hudson, Hilda Phoebe

(1881-1965), mathematician

by Mary R. S. Creese

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Hudson, Hilda Phoebe (1881-1965), mathematician, was born on 11 June 1881 in Cambridge, one of the four children of William Henry Hudson (1836-1916), fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, later professor of mathematics at King's College and Queen's College, Harley Street, London, and his wife, Mary (1843-1882), daughter of Robert Turnbull of Hackness, Yorkshire. Mary Hudson died when Hilda was still an infant, and her father had a strong influence on his children's early life; three of them became mathematicians. Indeed, Hudson's first publication, a simplified proof in Euclidian geometry, appeared in Nature in 1891 when she was ten.

Hudson entered Newnham College, Cambridge, from Clapham high school with a Gilchrist scholarship in 1900 and took both parts of the mathematical tripos (bracketed with the seventh wrangler, 1903; first class (division three) in part two, 1904). After a year at the University of Berlin she returned to Newnham as lecturer in mathematics (1905-10). A Newnham associate's research fellowship (1910-13) enabled her to spend a year at Bryn Mawr College, USA; she was also awarded MA, and in 1913 ScD, degrees by Trinity College, Dublin. She then became lecturer at West Ham Technical Institute where she prepared students for London University degrees. Although inspiring to the mathematically gifted, she was not an especially successful teacher.

In 1917 Hudson took a wartime civil service post, heading an Air Ministry subdivision doing aeronautical engineering research. Her work on the application of mathematical modelling to aircraft design was pioneering, and a tribute to her versatility. She continued this line of research with Parnell & Co. of Bristol until 1921, and then retired from salaried work to write the treatise for which she is remembered, Cremona Transformations in Plane and Space (1927).

Although she published several papers in applied mathematics (1917-20) and a well-received monograph, Ruler and Compasses (1916), most of Hudson's work was in the area of pure mathematics concerned with algebraic surfaces and plane curves. Cremona transformation, an analytical technique for studying the geometry of these, was her special interest. Though now displaced by powerful tools of abstract algebra, it was then a subject of considerable activity. Her exceptional geometrical intuition led her by basically elementary methods to solutions of quite difficult problems (reported in seventeen articles, 1911-29), and her much-quoted treatise, the culmination of nearly two decades of scholarly work, presented a unified account of the major elements of the field, supplemented with an extensive annotated bibliography.

A small woman, light of step and bright-eyed behind thick-lensed glasses, Hilda Hudson enjoyed hockey and swimming when young. Her life was simple, almost austere, though she had many friends. She never married. Deeply religious, she sought to unite her intellectual with her spiritual concerns, and increasingly found in mathematics an unending revelation of the glory of God. She was long a supporter of the Student Christian Movement, and honorary finance secretary of its auxiliary movement in 1927-39. As a distinguished mathematician she was one of the few women of her time to serve on the council of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1919 she was appointed OBE for her war work. Early onset of severe arthritis left Hilda Hudson progressively more disabled; latterly she moved into the Anglican St Mary's Convent and Nursing Home in Chiswick, where she died on 26 November 1965, at the age of eighty-four.


M. D. K., 'Hilda Phoebe Hudson, 1881-1965', Newnham College Roll Letter (1966), 53-4
J. G. Semple, Bulletin of the London Mathematical Society, 1 (1969), 357-9
[A. B. White and others], eds., Newnham College register, 1871-1971, 2nd edn, 1 (1979), 10, 58 [Mary Turnbull]
Venn, Alum. Cant. [Ronald Hudson and William Henry Hudson]
students in residence ledger, 1898-1906, Newnham College, Cambridge, archive
Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 2nd ser., 17-24 (1918-26)
d. cert.
private information (2004)
The Times (30 Nov 1965)

Wealth at death  
£32,815: probate, 30 March 1966, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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