Edmund Whittaker autobiography

We give a version of the autobiography of Edmund Taylor Whittaker which appears in James R Newman (ed.), What is Science? (Simon and Schuster, 1955), 20-23.

About Sir Edmund Taylor Whittaker

I was born at Southport, England, on October 24, 1873, the son of John Whittaker and Selina, daughter of Edmund Taylor, M.D. At the age of eleven I was sent away from home to the Manchester Grammar School. I was on the classical side, which meant that three-fifths of my time was devoted to Latin and Greek. In the lower forms, where the study was purely linguistic, I did well, but my lack of interest in poetry and drama caused a falling-off when I was promoted to the upper school, and I was glad to escape by electing to specialise in mathematics. Only after I had left school did I discover the field of Latin and Greek learning that really appealed to me - ancient and medieval theology, philosophy and science.

I gained an entrance scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1891, and was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1896 and put on the lecturing staff. Among my pupils at Trinity in 1896-1906 were the well-known mathematicians G H Hardy, Sir James Jeans, Harry Bateman, Sir Arthur Eddington, J E Littlewood, G N Watson, H W Turnbull, and Sir Geoffrey Taylor.

The professor of pure mathematics at this time was A R Forsyth, a sociable and hospitable man who liked entertaining mathematicians from the continent of Europe. I lived in the next rooms to him in college and was always invited to meet them: and in this way I came to know Felix Klein, who was a frequent visitor and for whom I had a great admiration and affection, and also Henri Poincaré and G Mittag-Leffler.

In 1898, 1899 and 1900 I acted as one of the secretaries of the mathematical and physical section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This was a valuable experience for such a young man, for I was brought into close contact with the great mathematical and experimental physicists of the older generation - Lord Kelvin, Lord Rayleigh, Sir George Stokes and G F FitzGerald; and those of the generation still in its prime - Sir J J Thomson, Sir Joseph Larmor, Sir Arthur Schuster and Sir Oliver Lodge; and my own contemporaries, such as Lord Rutherford.

I became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1898 and was appointed one of its secretaries in 1901. Here again I was brought into contact with many senior men of great distinction, particularly Sir William Huggins, who first applied spectroscopy to the stars, and Sir Norman Lockyer, and with others who though not famous astronomers were celebrated in other ways - notably Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommaney, who was a very old man when I knew him but attended the meetings regularly; he had fought (I presume as a midshipman) at the battle of Navarino in 1827, when the Turkish fleet was destroyed by an allied fleet under Codrington, and Greece was liberated.

I left Trinity in 1906 on being appointed Royal Astronomer of Ireland - the office held in 1827-1865 by Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the discoverer of quaternions and of Hamiltonian methods in optics and dynamics. My most distinguished pupil in Dublin was Eamon de Valera, who has never ceased to follow mathematics as a recreation from his political activities. About the end of my time in Ireland he was a candidate for a vacant chair of mathematics in Galway: I was asked my opinion and said that he was a man who would go far - a prediction fulfilled in a way I did not at the time anticipate.

In 1912 I was elected to the historic chair of mathematics in the University of Edinburgh, which had been occupied in 1674-1675 by Gregory and in 1725-1746 by Maclaurin. The epitaph composed for Maclaurin by Johnson when he and Boswell visited Scotland is still to be read in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and tells how Maclaurin was elected to the chair "electus ipso Newtono suadente."

In Edinburgh from 1912 to 1946 I had many undergraduate and postgraduate pupils who afterwards rose to distinction; two boys who came up from school together one year, and later became Fellows of the Royal Society, were W V D Hodge, who now holds the Lowndean chair of Geometry at Cambridge, and my son J M Whittaker, now vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield. I gave many lectures or courses of lectures at other universities which were afterwards printed: The Rouse Ball and Tarner lectures at Cambridge, the Herbert Spencer lectureship at Oxford, the Donnellan lectureship in Dublin, the Riddell lectureship at Durham (Newcastle), the Selby lectureship at Cardiff, the Hitchcock professorship at the University of California, the Bruce-Preller lectureship at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Larmor lectureship at the Royal Irish Academy, and the Guthrie lectureship of the Physical Society.

In connection with the Edinburgh chair, I may mention the institution in 1914 of what was, so far as I know, the first university mathematical laboratory, which incorporated in mathematical teaching the theory of computation as known to professional astronomers.

From other universities I received the honorary degrees of LL. D. (St Andrews and California) and Sc. D. (Dublin, National University of Ireland, Manchester, Birmingham and London).

I was elected F.R.S. in 1905, served on the Council and was awarded the Sylvester and Copley medals. With the Royal Society of Edinburgh I had continuous contact, being president in 1939-1944. At the end of my tenure of the presidency, a bronze portrait head, executed by Mr Benno Schotz, R.S.A., was subscribed for by the Fellows and placed in the Society's house. I was president of the Mathematical Association in 1920-21, of the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association in 1927, and of the London Mathematical Society in 1928-1929, being awarded its De Morgan Medal in 1935.

I am an Honorary Fellow or Foreign Member of many national academies or mathematical societies and of my old college, Trinity, and H H Pope Pius XI appointed me a member of the pontifical Academy of Sciences and conferred on me the Cross "pro Ecclesia et Pontifice."

Last Updated September 2023