Frederick Bath O.B.E., B.Sc. (Bristol), Ph.D. (Cantab.)

RSE Obituary

by W L Edge

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Frederick Bath, who was elected F.R.S.E. in 1929, was born in Islington on 10 September 1900. He gained a scholarship to King Edward VI School in the ancient and famous town of Bath, where he became head boy, and whence he won a scholarship to Bristol University. There was then on the staff at Bristol a highly erudite mathematician, an Aberdonian named Peter Fraser; it would be with his encouragement that, after graduating with first class honours, Bath went to King's College, Cambridge, to commence research in geometry under H W Richmond, F.R.S. His three years at King's, where he rowed in one of the college eights, were not only mathematically successful; the friendship forged with Richmond was broken only by Richmond's death in 1948.

In 1924 Bath was appointed an assistant lecturer at King's College, London, but in April 1928, he moved to Scotland. The official title of his appointment was 'Lecturer in Mathematics in the University (of St Andrews) and Assistant to the Professor of Mathematics in University College, Dundee.' In these present days of clamour over tenure, it should be stressed that, in the nineteen twenties and thirties, university lecturers were not given permanent tenure on appointment but had to work their passage year by year. So this appointment at Dundee was an annual one, renewable at the discretion of the employing authority. Today's young lecturers may be startled not only by the absence of tenure but also by the smallness of the staff and consequent burden of teaching duties. When Bath came to Dundee, the head of the department was ageing, having held his chair since the foundation of the College in 1883. His staff consisted of Bath and a single assistant, and this tiny group had to teach both pure and applied mathematics. A second assistant was appointed when Bath was awarded a Carnegie Trust Teaching Fellowship in 1929. This was a three-year arrangement (in this instance extended for a further year) by which the Trust gave the university half of a lecturer's salary. The university thereupon placed the lecturer on half-time teaching duties, so (this was the object of the exercise) freeing him for research, and appointed an assistant whose salary was paid from the Trust's donation. But the overspill of the workload proved too much for this particular move to work as planned.

Towards the end of 1936, a member of the mathematical department at Edinburgh was appointed to a chair in England; Bath was appointed to the vacancy and took up the position in January 1937. He was pleased to come, and settled contentedly in his new surroundings; not now the crucial pivot of the whole department but just one of a team of three or four colleagues of the same standing. We had of course known him well for the previous eight years because he played a full part in the meetings and affairs of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. His relations with students were excellent and he took up residence in Cowan House, the hostel for male students in George Square. But this mode of life was to alter; he had the good fortune to meet Olga Heywood and they were married in 1940. She survives him, with their three children and six grandchildren.

Soon after he moved to Edinburgh, Bath acquired the use of Elm How, a cottage on the route from Patterdale to Grasmere with a view across the valley towards Striding Edge; several of his friends will always call this cottage to mind whenever they think of him. The writer of this notice, having enjoyed his hospitality there (he was, incidentally, an excellent cook), can perhaps measure to some degree the appreciation of others. A visiting Dutch mathematician with no previous acquaintances in Scotland would be particularly grateful for his sojourn at Elm How. Other beneficiaries were a colleague's wife and daughters who stayed there away from the direct threat of wartime bombing and a party of about a dozen students to whom, when their arrangements for a Cairngorm holiday broke down, Bath offered the cottage instead. This dispensing of hospitality was but one aspect of a very generous and open-hearted gentleman. His steady friendship with Richmond has already been mentioned. Just as notable was his relationship with Steggall, the venerable professor of mathematics at Dundee; Bath, as his right-hand man, won the professor's complete confidence and sincere gratitude and Steggall responded by appointing Bath his executor and trustee. It is also good to record that the set, in the Dundee library, of Mathematische Annalen running from the first volume of 1869, originally belonged to Richmond: its presence in Dundee is due to Bath's generosity.

After the outbreak of war, the government began to seek administrative help from people in the universities, and Bath was among those chosen. He was technically 'loaned' by Edinburgh University to the Department of Health for Scotland from 1940 to 1945, and from an office in St Andrews House he would make sorties into the country and descend upon stately and not so stately homes with a view to requisitioning them as emergency hospitals. He could, in 1945, have returned to the mathematics department at Edinburgh, but it was also open to him to take a permanent post in the civil service. It was a hard decision to make, for he enjoyed mathematics and enjoyed teaching; but lecturers' salaries were barely adequate then to support a growing family and he made the choice his father-in-law had also made after the 1914-18 war when, for precisely the same reason, he did not return to teach mathematics at Bedford College. So, in the summer of 1945, Bath went to the Treasury where he reorganized the engineering grades of the civil service. It was ironical that, in his new position, he became privy to the handsome increases in lecturers' salaries; he knew of their good fortune before they knew themselves and his regret at having left academic circles was intensified by the thought that the financial problems might, after all, have been soluble had he returned.

In 1949, Bath was offered the post of secretary of the Nature Conservancy, again to be 'on loan', this time from the civil service. The recent squabbles and controversies in Somerset, regrettable and unseemly though they are, may serve to underline the satisfaction of recording that during Bath's time at the conservancy more than thirty years ago several areas of scientific interest were either acquired or agreements made with landowners. After three years, Bath returned to the civil service, now an Assistant Secretary, and busied himself under the Ministry of Works with housing. He must have made a good impression in influential quarters for he was personally asked by the Turkish government to advise them in setting up a new Reconstruction Ministry. He lived and worked in Ankara under the auspices of the United Nations for two years. On his return to England, he worked for a year at the Ministry of Works, but then went to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (now the Science Research Council), where his main work was representing the United Kingdom in the Preparatory Commission for European Space Research. This involved several years of frequent travelling in Europe and U.S.A. He served in this capacity until his retirement in 1969, and he was awarded the O.B.E in the New Year Honours list.

For the thirteen years beyond retirement that remained to him, he lived on the South Devon coast with a view down the Dart estuary and out to sea. Much of his time passed tending his garden; indeed he helped his next-door neighbours in their gardens too! He also had a small boat, moored on the Dart at Dittisham. He died after six weeks' illness on 2 September 1982, tended by his wife and visiting relatives in his own home.

This is not the place wherein to elaborate on Bath's prowess as a geometer. But one ought not to forbear mentioning that, in the spring of 1938, he made a striking discovery which surprised the cognoscenti. This was a new contribution to the plane geometry of certain sets of circles whose study had been commenced by W Wallace (F.R.S.E. 1804) about 1814.

Frederick Bath was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 4 March 1929, his proposers being John Edward Aloysius Steggall, Herbert Westren Turnbull, David Waterston, Herbert Stanley Allen. This obituary, written by W L Edge, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1984, pages 167-169.
(See also Proceedings of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society 26 (1983), 279-281.)