Herbert Westren Turnbull, mountaineer

The following obituary to Herbert Westren Turnbull was written by James H B Bell and appeared in The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal XXVII (153) (1962), 303-304.

Let us note that Dr J Y Macdonald mention in the article, was James Younger MacDonald, a chemistry lecturer at the University of St Andrews from 1927 to 1959. R C G Moggridge, mentioned in the article, was a chemist based in London. The author of the article, James H B Bell, graduated with an M.A. in Mathematics and Physics and a B.Sc. in Chemistry, both from the University of Edinburgh. He started his career with Tullis Russell, Markinch, Fife, and retired in 1964 when he was Chief Chemist with J A Weir Ltd., Papermakers, Alloa, Clackmannanshire.

Herbert Westren Turnbull, F.R.S., F.R.S.E., LL.D. 1885-1961.

Our ex-President, Professor-Emeritus H W Turnbull, died at Grasmere on 4th May 1961. He was a good friend and club member, a vigorous and keen mountaineer (very active to the age of 70), and a distinguished scientist and mathematician. He occupied the Regius Chair of Mathematics at St Andrews University from 1921 until his retirement in 1950.

In this modern era of specialists, a trend which has brought considerable changes of emphasis and performance to our own sport, we no longer seem to attract so many men of his type into our ranks, which is rather unfortunate. When writing this tribute to an old climbing friend I had a curious tendency to compare him with such noted Victorian mountaineers as Forbes and Tyndall. The latter, especially, achieved his scientific eminence before being drawn to the problems of glaciers and so to mountaineering where he became a considerable figure.

Turnbull, it is true, was familiar with the Lake District fells in his early days, but it was after he came to St Andrews that he climbed more regularly and extensively, especially in the company of our late member, Dr J Y Macdonald, with whom he was closely associated in the activities of the St Andrews U.M.C. His first Alpine campaign was in 1925, and this was followed by many more, so that he was elected to the membership of the Alpine Club in 1931, one year after joining our own Club. By 1933 he was regularly doing guideless climbing in the Alps, mainly with his friend R C G Moggridge. No doubt, his frequent exploratory climbing in Scotland with Macdonald and others, much of it on Ben Nevis under winter conditions, helped his technique considerably. He had many first-class Alpine peaks to his credit - e.g., Mischabel, Monte Rosa, Matterhorn (twice), Dent Blanche, Zinal Rothorn, Combin de Corbassière and many others. In 1939 he visited Norway and climbed South Dyrhaugstind and other peaks. In 1950 he climbed in the U.S.A. on Mt Washington (main wall), Lion's Peak and Mt Wilson. His last visit to the Alps was in 1955 when he was only able to do the Riffelhorn and Untergabelhorn. By 1957 his heart was giving him trouble, but he still climbed a little in the Lakes, taking a 6-year-old grandson up Dow Crag by an easy buttress.

He liked to revisit his peaks, either to rectify errors or to ascend by another route and so come to really know his mountains. I had only one Alpine holiday with him, at Bel Alp in 1936. We climbed many smaller peaks (Belgrat and Fusshörner ) and traversed the Aletschhorn, also the Nesthorn. Using an older edition of the S.A.C. Guide to the area we sallied out and made what we fondly thought was a first ascent of the 8th Fusshorn. Four stones, suspiciously like a cairn were on its small summit. On returning to Bel Alp we found that the peak had been climbed 2 or 3 years earlier! - I particularly remember one expedition on a rocky peak in the Gredetschtal when his game persistence in bad weather nearly landed us in serious trouble. As a leader I simply had to 'down tools' in a thunder-cum-hailstorm, telling him to retreat down some very steep slabs while it was still possible. He was a sincerely religious man and told me next day that I, unwittingly to both of us, had been guided by Providence! I wondered how the whole episode squared up with traditional mathematical caution and prudence.

But it was typical of the spirit of the man. Mountaineering was the contrasting phase to his academic studies, an outlet to his inborn spirit of adventure. Physically he was well built for it, of medium height and weight. He also wanted to climb the north ridge of the Weisshorn that year, but it was very heavily covered with new snow. I think he stalked this quarry in later years, but got no closer than the Brunnegghorn, Bieshorn and Diablons. (No more have I!)

Turnbull was an outstanding mathematician, founding a school of algebraic research at St Andrews, in a sort of final development of the work of Cayley and Sylvester on invariants, matrices, etc. He published texts on matrices and determinants. His other mathematical interest was historical and biographical. In 1929 he published a short book on 'The Great Mathematicians.' He also unearthed some hitherto unknown papers of the Scottish mathematician James Gregory (1638-1675), which established the priority of Gregory's discovery of several important theorems. All this he published in a Gregory tercentenary volume in 1938. On his own mathematical researches Professor Turnbull published some sixty papers in all. After his retirement he continued his activities by undertaking the considerable task of editing the correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton, under the auspices of the Royal Society of which he was a Fellow. The first two volumes were published before his death.

He took a great interest in the affairs of our Club, served on the Committee for 3 years, acted as Vice-President for 2 years and was President of the Club from 1948-1950. During all this time he was a fairly regular attender of Club Meets and climbed in all seasons and weather, continuing his active participation in the St Andrews U.M.C. till well into his sixties. He was also a versatile cricketer and a pianist of distinction.

It is pleasant to reflect that when he retired to Millom, Cumberland, he continued to walk the fells and do some rock climbing. His last letter to me, when the condition of his heart had compelled him to move slowly, still expressed the same delight as ever in the hills. We shall miss his genial and kindly presence at our Meets, and our sympathy goes out to Mrs Turnbull and to his son Derwent, one of our members, in their bereavement.

James H B Bell

Last Updated September 2023