Whitehead, John Henry Constantine

(1904-1960), mathematician

by E. T. Williams, rev. John Bosnell

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Whitehead, John Henry Constantine (1904-1960), mathematician, was born in Madras on 11 November 1904, the only child of Henry Whitehead, bishop of Madras and sometime fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and his wife, Isobel Frances (1872-1953), daughter of the Revd John Duncan, vicar of Calne, and an early mathematical student of Lady Margaret Hall. A. N. Whitehead was his uncle. He was educated at Eton College (1918-23), where he was a member of the Pop society, and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was first a Williams exhibitioner, and then an honorary scholar and where he obtained first classes in mathematical moderations (1924) and in the final honour school (1926), his work much influenced by H. O. Newboult of Merton. Whitehead played billiards and boxed for the university and was elected to the Authentics. He shared a passion for cricket with another mathematician, G. H. Hardy, whom he met at this time.

After eighteen months in the City under the guidance of O. T. Falk of Buckmaster and Moore, stockbrokers, Whitehead returned to Balliol in 1928 for further work in mathematics and in the following year went with a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to Princeton to study under Oswald Veblen. Much of his work was done in differential geometry and in 1932, with Veblen, he published the classic Cambridge Tract in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, The Foundations of Differential Geometry.

In 1932 Whitehead became lecturer in mathematics, and in 1933 fellow and tutor, at Balliol in succession to J. W. Nicholson. In 1934 he married a concert pianist, Barbara Sheila, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel W. Carew Smyth RE; they had two sons. During the Second World War he served in the Admiralty and the Foreign Office. Returning to Oxford he became Waynflete professor of pure mathematics in 1947 and thus migrated to Magdalen. Towards the end of his time at Princeton he had turned to the study of topology in which most of his remaining work was done and in which his contribution was both massive and fundamental. Some of his most original work was completed in the years before the war although its importance was not fully recognized until later. After the war he produced a large volume of work in combinatorial topology and then in the algebraic side of homotopy theory, returning in the last few years of his life to a more geometrical kind of topology. His reputation was international and research students came from many countries to work enjoyably with him. He was largely responsible for establishing the Mathematical Institute at Oxford, where the library was named after him, was a committee member of the British Mathematical Colloquium, and in 1953-5 presided over the London Mathematical Society. He was elected FRS in 1944.

A sociable and inspiring teacher, Whitehead threw himself with rotund zest into college and university life. He was a keen player of village, and especially Barnacles, cricket, and delighted in discussing sporting controversies. He was a learned devotee of the works of P. G. Wodehouse and of poker, the enjoyment of which he claimed to have learned at his mother's knee. He valued friendships which were wide in both range and age group:

It was in long mathematical conversations in which every detail had to be hammered out till he had it quite correct and secure that he most delighted and it is by these conversations, gay and informal, in which he contrived to make everyone his own equal
that his fellow mathematicians have recalled him most gratefully. Approachable to everyone, towards women he had an old-fashioned courtesy uniquely his own. His marriage was very happy and the Whiteheads excelled in informal hospitality, first in north Oxford, then at their farm at Noke on Otmoor, where they kept with great success the well-bred herd of cattle which Whitehead had inherited from his mother.

An affectionate and lovable character, Henry Whitehead was a seminal mathematician and an ingenious and humane man. He died on 8 May 1960 while on sabbatical leave at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He was survived by his wife.


M. H. A. Newman, Memoirs FRS, 7 (1961), 349-63
Nature, 186 (1960), 932
Journal of the London Mathematical Society, 37 (1962)
'Biographical note', The mathematical works of J. H. C. Whitehead, ed. I. M. James, 1 (1962)
personal knowledge (1971)
private information (1971)
The Times (10-12 May 1960)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1960)

G. Spencer, oils, Mathematical Institute, Oxford

Wealth at death  
£31,676 16s. 5d.: probate, 6 July 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)