Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw

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Brilliant mathematician with a special interest in magic squares, she served as an educational adviser to Thatcher in the 1980s

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who has died aged 101, was a noted mathematician and educationist. She also served as lord mayor of Manchester and was a local councillor in her native city for more than 25 years.

In mathematics, one of her particular interests was magic squares, a subject that had fascinated mathematicians for thousands of years. These are grids in which the numbers add up horizontally, vertically and diagonally to the same total. Kathleen's best known mathematical work, Most-Perfect Pandiagonal Magic Squares: Their Construction and Enumeration (1998), co-authored with David Brée, was the result of her investigations.

Daughter of Mary (nee Stops) and Charles Timpson, Kathleen was born in Manchester, into a family which owned shares in shoe shops throughout Britain. Her father was a local magistrate. When Kathleen was a child she became seriously ill and, although she recovered, she was left without hearing. The University of Manchester had a department, unique at the time, training students to become teachers of partially deaf children and at eight, Kathleen was taught by them how to lipread. It was not until she was in her late 30s that she received her first hearing aid.

She went to Lady Barn House school in Manchester, where she showed a great aptitude for mathematics, and then to St Leonard's boarding school, St Andrews, Scotland. In her autobiography, To Talk of Many Things (2004), she recalled: "I never aspired to being a professional mathematician, or to being a professional anything for that matter & If you are deaf, you are glad to 'get by', to keep up with others in an ordinary class-room and not to be condemned as being lazy, inattentive or merely 'slow'."

She considered that "mathematics is the one school subject not dependent on hearing". From St Leonard's, she won an open scholarship in mathematics to Somerville College, Oxford. There, she captained the university women's hockey XI. For several years before the second world war she also played hockey for Lancashire and for the north of England.

In 1937, she joined the staff of the Shirley Institute, the research centre into the cotton industry based in Didsbury, as a statistician. While an undergraduate, Kathleen had become engaged to Robert Ollerenshaw, whom she had known since her schooldays, and they married in 1939. He became a military surgeon during the war and later a radiologist at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Although she left the Shirley Institute after the birth of their children, Kathleen kept up her mathematical work, returning to Somerville to study for a DPhil, and later working part-time as a lecturer at Manchester University, as well as getting involved in educational matters and in 1956 being elected to Manchester city council as a Conservative member.

In 1964 the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications was founded with the support of Sir James Lighthill, probably the greatest applied mathematician of the 20th century. Kathleen was a foundation fellow and, in the late 1970s, served as vice-president, then president of the institute, 1978-79. In her presidential address she spoke of "the magic of mathematics" and gave an elegant and enthusiastic survey of some splendid mathematical proofs, using examples as diverse as the angle of screws in the Manchester sewage works and the structure of honeycombs and wasps' nests.

She lectured on mathematics all over the country, making a special effort to cater for children, with whom she developed a rapport. Over 20 years she became increasingly involved in education  including working on the governing bodies of Manchester grammar school, Manchester high school for girls and with the Association of Governing Bodies of Girls' Public Schools. Kathleen's books based on her experiences in education included Education of Girls (1958), Education for Girls (1961) and Returning to Teaching (1974). She was made a dame in 1971 for her services to education and became a prime mover in the creation of the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973. In the 80s she was invited to become an adviser on education matters to Margaret Thatcher's government.

In the same decade, she published her work in many leading mathematical journals. But despite her brilliant mathematical brain, Kathleen was proudest of her role as lord mayor of Manchester. She lived all her life in the city and represented Rusholme ward for 26 years, for the Conservatives  not the majority party on the city council. In the 70s there was an arrangement where the minority party could occasionally select the lord mayor and in 1975 Kathleen moved into the lord mayor's quarters with her family. She loved to entertain there and during her time in office commissioned a portrait of the Queen to hang in the town hall. When her year in office came to an end, she wrote a children's book, The Lord Mayor's Party (1976).

A keen amateur astronomer, Kathleen was an honorary member of the Manchester Astronomical Society. The observatory at Lancaster University, where she served as a deputy pro-chancellor, 1978-91, is named after her and was opened by her friend Sir Patrick Moore in 2002. Moore once showed a magnificent picture of an eclipse on TV on The Sky at Night, saying: "I wish that I had taken that photograph but I did not have the good fortune to do so  it was taken by my friend Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw."

In 2000 she suffered a serious loss of vision. Unable to watch television or to drive, she found consolation, she said, with Radio 3, and managed to keep up with correspondents using an elaborate reading contraption with lights and a huge magnifier.

Robert died in 1986. Their daughter, Florence, and son, Charles, also predeceased her.

Norman Clarke

Kathleen Mary Ollerenshaw, educationist and mathematician, born 1 October 1912; died 10 August 2014

12 August 2014 © Guardian News and Media Limited