LMS Hirst Prize and Lectureship

1. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews (30 June 2015).
The London Mathematical Society announced on 3 July 2015 that: Dr John O'Connor and Professor Edmund Robertson, of the University of St Andrews, are awarded the Hirst Prize and Professor Edmund Robertson will be invited to give the associated Hirst Lectureship for "their creation, development and maintenance of the MacTutor History of Mathematics web site."

The London Mathematical Society decided to award a one-off prize as a part of the celebrations to mark the LMS 150th Anniversary. The Prize regulations stated:
The Hirst Prize and Lectureship for the History of Mathematics - For contributions to the study of the history of mathematics. The prize will be awarded in recognition of original and innovative work in the history of mathematics, which may be in any medium.
John O'Connor and Edmund Robertson created the MacTutor History of Mathematics web site in the early-1990s as enrichment for the Mathematical MacTutor system developed at St Andrews to support the teaching of undergraduate mathematics. By 1995 the web site contained some 1000 biographies of past mathematicians - 200 fuller biographies with portraits and 800 shorter biographies - and about 20 articles on the history of mathematics, and it received some 90000 hits a month. Since then O'Connor and Robertson have continued to develop and maintain the web site so that it has grown larger, more sophisticated and more reliable. Now it has over 2800 detailed biographies of mathematicians and related scientists with bibliographies (primary and secondary sources) accompanying each article, around 150 historical articles on mathematical topics, over 2000 other pages of essays on specific topics and further resources, such as an interactive page on historical curves. The web site has become a hugely successful resource for school-children, undergraduates, graduate students and their teachers all over the world, receiving 10,000,000 hits per month during the academic year, with around 2,000,000 distinct users. It is the first port of call for those interested in the historical side of the mathematical sciences, giving mathematicians direct links to their profession's past. It bridges the gap between old books and modern journals, and its biographies give lives to names otherwise known only for the theorems to which they are attached. It is the most widely used and influential web-based resource in history of mathematics. That it has been created and maintained almost exclusively by O'Connor and Robertson is quite remarkable. Edmund Robertson will be invited to give the Hirst Lectureship as a part of the prize.
2. P Neumann, The Inaugural LMS Hirst Lecture, London Mathematical Society Newsletter.
The Inaugural LMS Hirst Lecture


Wednesday 20 April 2016 in St Andrews, Scotland.

As part of the London Mathematical Society 150th birthday celebrations in 2015, Council created a new prize, the Hirst Prize and Lectureship for the History of Mathematics. It is awarded in recognition of original and innovative work in the history of mathematics. The name commemorates Thomas Archer Hirst, FRS (1830-1892). One of the founding fathers of the LMS, he served as its first Vice- President, worked on its Council for twenty years, as Honorary Treasurer for much of that time, and served as President 1872-74. The first award was made at this meeting by Professor Ken Brown, Vice-President, to Dr John O'Connor and Professor Edmund Robertson for their creation, development and maintenance of the MacTutor History of Mathematics web site, hosted at St Andrews.

There were about 60 members and guests present to hear a lovely programme of two lectures on topics in the history of mathematics, both focused very appropriately on biography. The warm-up act (as he himself described it) was a talk by Dr Mark McCartney (University of Ulster) titled Sir Edmund Taylor Whittaker (1873-1956): Laplace's Equation, Silver Forks and Vogue. We learned of Whittaker's huge breadth of scholarship, in science, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, religion, history of physics and mathematics, and gardening. We learned of his great influence as a teacher, and of his introduction of numerical analysis into the syllabus. We learned also of his extensive public persona. How his success at giving a general solution of Laplace's Equation was not only published three times in mathematical and physical learned journals, but also made it into regional newspapers, such as The Yorkshire Evening Post, where it appeared on the front page in gloriously garbled form. And his writings on Christianity appeared in The Listener, in Vogue, and in other organs that one does not usually associate with great mathematicians. And silver forks? This referred to an episode where Whittaker's silver forks were taken and auctioned to pay the rates which, as a highly religious man of principle, he had refused to pay because of a disagreement with his local council.

After an agreeable break for refreshments and discussion, we had the Hirst Lecture itself, History of Mathematics: Some Personal Thoughts, delivered on behalf of both prize-winners by Professor Robertson. Their interest in history of mathematics had been stimulated by their teaching, by their wish to show students where the subject came from, but also that the polish of modern presentations of syllabus topics hides the difficulties of mathematical discovery. Professor Robertson focussed on the difficulties of doing history of mathematics. Where evidence is feeble, as is the case for much ancient history, historians cannot be certain and must agree to disagree. There are several theories about Euclid, for example. Was this one ancient philosopher or a group? If a group, what was the mechanism for producing The Elements? Insofar as evidence exists it is mostly circumstantial, and to some extent contradictory.

And what is "truth" in history of mathematics? Most complaints about the MacTutor biographies concern nationality. Should Lagrange be described as Italian or French? National claims focus on different aspects of his life and work. Similarly, Eurocentric bias has been rife for a very long time. A most interesting case is that of Charles Whish (1795-1833), an employee of the East India Company, whose discoveries that sophisticated computations of the number π had been made from series expansions many years before that was done in Europe, but was told by his superiors who did not respect Indian people that this was "too ridiculous to deserve attention". Whish's Euroscepticism is now accepted as fully justified.

This was as promised, a delightfully personal lecture and an excellent inauguration of the Lectureship, which Council has now decided to continue to award, every two years from 2018.

Peter Neumann
The Queen's College, Oxford

Last Updated March 2024