Douglas Munn's Herald Obituary

The following Obituary, written in two parts, the first by John Howie, and the second part by Douglas's sister Lesley Duncan, was published in The Herald on Tuesday 11 November 2008.

1. Professor Walter Douglas Munn.

By John M Howie, Emeritus Regius Professor of Mathematics, University of St Andrews.
Mathematician and musician; Born April 24, 1929; Died October 26, 2008.

Douglas Munn (he seldom aired his other Christian name), who has died aged 79, was a former chair of mathematics at both Stirling and Glasgow universities and also an accomplished musician.

He was born in Troon and educated at Marr College. His father, who died when Douglas was 16, worked on the railways; his mother was a teacher.

Both parents were talented painters, in watercolours and oils. At Glasgow University, his MA with first class honours in mathematics and natural philosophy was especially remarkable, for his choice of "outside" subjects were music and English. He was also awarded the Logan Prize as the outstanding arts graduate of that year. By then he was an accomplished pianist, and had even composed some pieces for piano.

There is a long tradition that talented young Scots migrate southward, usually to one or other of the ancient universities, and it was to Cambridge that Munn arrived in 1951. Here he began his highly creative and brilliantly-presented work on abstract algebra and made a sound start as a professional mathematician. This is not the place to go into detail, but over his career he published nearly 100 research articles.

These were worked on with draft after draft, and everything Munn wrote for publication was a masterpiece of exposition. One lady mathematician, who perhaps had better remain anonymous, declared that she had fallen in love with Professor Munn long before she met him, just by reading his articles.

With a PhD from Cambridge under his arm in 1955, there was another hurdle to conquer, for those were the days of National Service. Fortunately for Munn, there was no question of two years' square-bashing at Catterick: the powers-that-be sent him to GCHQ in Cheltenham. What he did there we are not allowed even to speculate, but he enjoyed the experience, and when he returned to academic life he did from time to time (mostly when facing a huge load of examination papers to mark) comment that he might have been better to stay there.

It is clear that he would have been welcomed back, as he remained a consultant for several years. But return he did, in 1956, to Glasgow University, as a junior member of the mathematics department.

He did not stay junior for long and in 1966 he was appointed to the chair of mathematics in the fledgling University of Stirling, by which time he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I followed him a year later, and for the session 1967-68 we were the mathematics department. We were the music department as well: no provision had been made for music, and the two of us had to take action. Munn, leading from the front, gave great encouragement to talented students in organising chamber music. I conducted a choir - with Munn as one of my basses.

In 1973 Munn returned to Glasgow, to the Thomas Muir Chair of Mathematics, a post he held with distinction until his retirement. He received many invitations to speak at the international conference merry-go-round, and his originality and clear expositions have been a major influence in the work of younger mathematicians in many parts of the world.

He enjoyed the musical life of Glasgow, and his friends, who had thought he might die a bachelor, were delighted in 1980 when he could share that musical life with wife Clare, also an accomplished musician.

Munn revised some of his earlier compositions in recent years and was invited to place a selection of them in the Scottish Music Archive. There are seven piano compositions there and he appears on the archive website.

Munn was one of its early directors of St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh and served for 26 years, from 1974 to 2000. Even when no longer formally involved with the school, Munn attended its concerts and continued to support it with enthusiasm.

In retirement, he continued with mathematical research, and he showed great courage in his final illness.
2. Professor Walter Douglas Munn. An appreciation.

By Lesley Duncan, sister of Douglas.
It's daunting to be the younger sister of a brilliant sibling. I know from experience. Not that my brother, Douglas, was in any way arrogant or overbearing. Far from it. He was, in spite of his intellectual distinction, one of the most modest people imaginable.

No, the trouble was the expectations of others, especially teachers. Douglas had become a legendary ex-pupil by the time I reached secondary school. "Sit down, Elisabeth Munn, you are a broken reed," the head maths teacher at Marr College would dismiss me.

Douglas, if he had known about invidious comparisons, would have been annoyed. He was a good friend, often including his kid sister in the sorties he and his student friends made to Glasgow on Saturday nights to hear the Scottish National Orchestra, as it was in its pre-Royal days.

My brother was a fine pianist; strangely perhaps for someone of mathematical bent, a player of Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms, rather than Bach. I owe my knowledge of the late Beethoven piano sonatas to page-turning for him.

Having a distinguished brother had its rewards.

Visiting him in Cambridge and then Cheltenham (when he worked for GCHQ) introduced me as a girl to an altogether wider milieu than I had known. Through him I met some fascinating men of international distinction, including Josef P from the then Leningrad who took home a case of bananas from Scotland for his family and told me sadly when asked what he thought of Scotland: "You live; we don't."

One of the mysteries of mathematics is how this international fraternity of abstract thinkers is produced by the most disparate societies, when education to a high level is offered.

Of course, it is in the nature of such high intellectual endeavour that the enthusiasms it generates cannot be shared by the layman or woman.

My brother was well aware of this and regretted it. So he was very fortunate in having his love of music to share with friends and family, and especially his musician wife, Clare.

Last Updated November 2019