George Chrystal

Scotsman obituary

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The Late Professor Chrystal

We deeply regret to announce that Professor Chrystal, who has occupied the Chair of Mathematics in the University of Edinburgh since 1879, died yesterday morning at his residence, 5 Belgrave Crescent. He had not been in robust health for two or three years, but he was able to carry on his work efficiently until April of the present year, when growing weakness compelled him to seek a certain measure of relief. The summer's rest, unfortunately, failed to restore him, and at the beginning of the winter session the University Court granted him extended leave of absence. His illness had, however, already revealed itself as mortal, and for the last week or two both he and his friends have been fully prepared for the end.

George Chrystal was born near Aberdeen in March 1851. He entered the University there in 1868, and speedily came to the front as probably the best all-round student of his day, being a prizeman in every class in the Arts curriculum. It is interesting to remember that he even distinguished himself in Latin verse. Originally, indeed, his bent was towards Classics. But, as his powers matured, he definitely decided for Mathematics, and in that department he swept everything before him; when he graduated with first-class honours in 1871, he carried off the Arnott Prize, the Simpson Prize, and the Town Council gold medal. In the same year he won the Ferguson Scholarship, as well as an open scholarship at St Peters College Cambridge. The excellent training he had reached in Aberdeen, notably under Dr David Rennet, stood him in good stead at Peterhouse. He found it easy to keep well abreast of his Tripos work, and yet have ample leisure for a full enjoyment of the unique pleasure of undergraduate companionship. His closest friend during this period was another old Aberdonian, Robert Neil, and the intimacy endured unbroken until 1901, when Neil's premature death robbed the University of Cambridge of one of the ablest and wisest classical teachers she has ever enlisted in her service. Neil's influence undoubtedly helped to develop in Chrystal that extraordinary freshness of mind for which he was always so remarkable.

When his undergraduate career terminated in 1875 he came out Second Wrangler - bracketed, as it happened, with another of his friends, William Burnside, destined, like himself, to rise to eminence as a Mathematical professor. The two were also Smith's Prizemen. Election to a Fellowship at Corpus Christi College followed immediately. A generation ago the life of a Corpus don was not exactly strenuous. Chrystal, it is true, found another outlet for his energy in the great Cavendish Laboratory, which had just been presented to the University by its Chancellor, the then Duke of Devonshire. Much of the electrical and other apparatus there was installed under his direct advice and supervision. With it all, however, the prospect of remaining permanently in Cambridge did not seem sufficiently attractive. He rather dreaded the narrowing effect which such an environment might produce upon his mental outlook. Accordingly, when the Regius Chair of Mathematics in St Andrews fell vacant in 1877, he let it be known that he wished to be considered as a candidate. He was not sanguine that the venture would succeed, for powerful forces were at work on behalf of others, while he had nothing to rely on save a reputation of brilliant promise. But the stars in their courses fought in his favour, and in the end he became the choice of the Crown. Few persons can have been summoned to assume professorial responsibility on such brief notice as he. The letter from the Home Secretary announcing his appointment reached him on a Saturday morning; it informed him that he would be expected to begin his duties on the following Monday. The suddenness of the call was equalled by the adequacy of the response. Before he had been many months at St Andrews his position as a first-rate teacher was so securely established that on Kelland's death his transference to Edinburgh was universally regarded as not merely fitting but inevitable.

Those who were Arts students at our University in 1879 can hardly fail to remember the thrill created by his advent. Mr J M Barrie has put it upon record that "when Chrystal came to Edinburgh he rooted up the humours of the class-room as a dentist draws teeth." The simile is so far misleading in that it suggests exertion. No exertion was required. As the slight, youthful figure moved up and down the platform, darting keen glances here and there through his spectacles, and every now and again turning to the blackboard to thread his way through a maze of figures with almost bewildering swiftness, his hearers instinctively felt that here was a man who knew his business and who meant to do it. Those who could not or would not follow did not dare to interrupt. The rest would have grudged to lose a word, for to them the lucidity of his expositions meant something little short of a revelation. Mathematics ceased to be a mere farrago of more or less ingenious dodges for solving puzzles of a rather conventional type; it became a well articulated whole, held together by a firm framework of general principles, to the appreciation of which it was a genuine pleasure to be guided. That his teaching affected in this way the whole of his class, it would be idle to pretend. But his policy in that respect was deliberate: he held that his real duty was to show the capable and the willing how to press forward, not to spend time in whipping up the laggards. And on the point of principle he was absolutely consistent; from the outset he maintained that his subject should not be compulsory but optional.

In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that even in his first session there should have been murmurs that Chrystal was bent on "raising the standard." So in truth he was. But the horizon of the murmurers was bounded by a certain fearful looking for of degree examinations to come. Their Professor had something very different in his mind. He believed that the level of mathematical study in Scotland was not nearly so high as it ought to be, and that a resolute endeavour to improve it was imperative. As a matter of fact, to him more than to any other single individual is due the great advance that the last thirty years have witnessed. Shortly after his settlement in Edinburgh, the newly-erected Scotch Education Department instituted an organised inspection of secondary schools. Chrystal lent them active assistance, visiting centres all over the country and exposing weaknesses with a frankness that made him the terror of the incompetent. But this destructive criticism was only an incident. His main contribution to the movement was the stimulating influence that issued from his teaching. From the first he had "disciples." Nor were his activities limited by the four walls of his own class-room. As soon as he came to Edinburgh, there sprang up between him and his colleague Professor Tait a singularly warm attachment, based almost as much upon personal liking as upon community of tastes. Dr Knott tells in his biography of Tait that Chrystal spent his first six or seven summer vacations experimenting in the Physical Laboratory, where
both directly and indirectly he gave many a hint to the students who were able to take advantage of their opportunities.
He adds:-
When I left for Japan in 1883, Chrystal was almost as strong an influence in the Laboratory as Tait himself.
Similarly the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, which was founded in 1883, and which still flourishes, owed its initial success very largely to his encouragement.

But it was not merely as a teacher that he served the University. He had all the qualities of a first-rate man of business-methodical habits, sound judgment, prompt decision, persistent driving power. Thus it was that, when Professor Campbell Fraser retired in 1891, Chrystal was by common consent made Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He entered on his office at a highly critical time. Complex and far-reaching changes were on the point of being introduced as the result of the Ordinances framed by the Universities' Commission. When he took the helm in hand, it was to steer the Arts Faculty through the troubled waters of transition. The task was none the easier because the alterations were not always quite to his liking; they savoured too much of compromise to satisfy so thoroughgoing a University reformer. Many years ago he drew attention to some of their defects in an article which was printed in these columns, and it is worth pointing out now that most of the Improvements which he then advocated have actually been effected by the new Ordinance for Degrees in Arts which came into operation recently. His tenure of the Deanship lasted as long as his connection with the University, his grip of administrative details growing firmer year by year. Besides involving him in a multifarious mass of work, it meant at certain seasons a heavy demand for personal interviews. About the beginning, and again about the end, of the session, a steady flow of students set in towards his retiring-room with documents to be signed or difficulties to be explained. Documents ware signed laconically, and genuine perplexities were cleared up with a quietness that seemed almost uncanny, and that sometimes left the interviewer too much astonished to take proper note of the kindly word or smile with which he was dismissed. The only inquirer who had any reason to dread these meetings was the student who had devised in his heart what he deemed a clever way of evading the regulations. Chrystal was, above all things, a straight man, and he did not spare those who were guilty of conduct which he regarded as disingenuous. Next to the University, the institution that will miss him most sorely is the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Elected a Fellow in 1880, he began at once to contribute to its "Transactions," being awarded the Keith Prize (1879-81) for his paper on the Differential Telephone. Ere long he was a recognised force upon the Council, and after being many years a vice-president he was appointed general secretary when Tait died in 1901. His secretaryship will always be notable in the Society's history. It covered the acute crisis that preceded the passing of the National Galleries Act. The events are too fresh in the public mind to bear recapitulation here. But all who were behind the scenes know that, if Chrystal did not do much of the speaking, he was the real organiser of victory. Nor would it be easy to exaggerate the keenness of the satisfaction that the ultimate settlement gave him; it appealed to him as a much-needed act of justice to Scotland. He had feared the virtual extinction of the Society's usefulness. Instead, he saw it paced on a far more stable basis than it had ever occupied before. While this very campaign was in progress, he was bearing the burden of yet another heavy public duty. As chairman of the first Edinburgh Provincial Committee for the Training of Teachers, a position which he had accepted with considerable reluctance, he was the guiding spirit in laying down the lines along which the new organisation was to work. In particular, he took the leading part in those delicate negotiations with the Churches which had the happy result of putting an end once and for all to the possibility that a religious difficulty would ever arise in connection with the training colleges in Scotland. Associated with him were men of much experience in local affairs, and it was their unhesitating verdict that Chrystal was the best chairman under whom it had ever been their fortune to serve. His sagacity, his fairmindedness, his patience, and his thoroughness seemed to them beyond all praise. There were many other phases of his activities. For many years he represented the University on the Heriot Trust, and for seven or eight he was a member of a Committee appointed by the War Office to advise the Army Council regarding the preliminary education of officers.

With so crowded a record of public work, it would not have been astonishing if there had been no time to spare for original research. But, like all good teachers, Chrystal was himself a learner to the very last. Before he was thirty he had contributed masterly articles on Electricity and on Magnetism to the ninth edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica." A bibliography of the papers he published in various periodicals would make a formidable list. His chief work, however, was his great "Treatise on Algebra," the first volume of which appeared in 1886, the second two years later. This book, which has already passed through five editions, entitles him to rank with De Morgan and Clifford as one of the acknowledged masters of the science, and it has earned for him among mathematicians a reputation which is not merely European, but world-wide. Very few scholars enjoy, as he did, the distinction of having their writings translated into Japanese. His "Introduction to Algebra" (1898) was an elementary text-book, based upon its larger predecessor. More important were his subsequent researches into those once mysterious lake-movements known as seiches. During the last forty years the subject has attracted great attention in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. But nothing was done in Scotland until a decade ago, when the bathymetrical survey of Scottish lakes was commenced. Sir John Murray then invited Chrystal to give a brief account of the hydrodynamical principles of seiches and to formulate suggestions for the surveyors as to the observations they might make. As he phrased it himself, he "speedily caught the seiche madness," and devoted to it all the leisure he could spare for three or four years. In particular, he organised a most elaborate series of observations on Loch Earn, enlisting workers, inventing instruments, supervising every detail in person. This was in 1905. The material thus accumulated served as the foundation for a study of a singularly prolonged and abstruse kind. The result was a set of papers on The Mathematical Theory of Seiches in the "Transactions of the Royal Society," which gained for him the Gunning Prize, and which have been generally accepted at home and abroad as constituting a noteworthy advance. Many years ago the University of Aberdeen made him an LL.D., and quite recently a similar honour was conferred on him by Glasgow.

Active in body as in mind, Chrystal was a good walker and a keen angler. Though he enjoyed company, he was too busy a man to be drawn into the vortex of social engagements In his earlier Edinburgh days he was a prominent figure among the well-known men whom the late Mr Irvine Smith used to gather round his table, and as long as health lasted he seldom missed a dinner of the Royal Society Club. But, on the whole, as he grew older the circle of his intimacies became at once narrower and deeper. He was not gifted with the grace that can suffer bores gladly or mask the impatience that needless interruptions are apt to engender. But except perhaps at examination times, when he always insisted on doing his fair share of the drudgery, he was never so much occupied that he was not glad to extend a cordial welcome to a friend. When in congenial mood, he was one of the brightest and most stimulating of talkers. It would have been hard to discover a subject in which he had not a warm and lively interest. He had travelled extensively on the Continent, and more than twenty years ago he visited America to give advice as to the organisation of what is now the leading University in the Western States. His linguistic accomplishments, too, were far above the average. He never quite lost touch with the great Latin authors. His last visit to Rome, for instance, sent him back to Horace with his old zest renewed. To an excellent command of colloquial German he added a good conversational acquaintance with French, Norse, and Italian; and in the literature of the first three, as in that of his own country, he was very widely read. His talisman was an extraordinarily rapid power of work. Yet, when all is said, those who knew him best will probably admit that there was in him nothing more admirable than his native strength and simplicity of character. More than one offer of academic preferment came his way unsolicited. But all alike were resolutely declined; he had found work that suited him, and he did not care to leave it. There is reason to believe that a knighthood was similarly refused. At the same time this last suggestion can hardly have failed to gratify him, coming as it did from a Government with whose views he was out of sympathy. Though he took no ostensible part in politics, he voted consistently on the Unionist side, his sturdy individualism making him specially distrustful of some recent legislative experiments. Professor Chrystal, who was a widower, is survived by a grown-up family.

George Chrystal died on 3 November 1911 and this obituary appeared in The Scotsman on the following day.