John Arthur Todd

Royal Society Obituary

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John Todd was one of the last survivors of the school of classical algebraic geometry that flourished in Cambridge under H.F. Baker, F.R.S. But unlike most of his contemporaries, with the notable exception of W.V.D. Hodge, F.R.S., Todd made seminal contributions to the more modern theory and his name is now enshrined in the literature and widely known.

Todd was born in Liverpool, son of a schoolmaster, also John Arthur Todd, and Agnes (Perfect) Todd. Educated at Liverpool Collegiate School, he won an entrance scholarship in Natural Science to Trinity College, Cambridge, and went up in October 1925 to read Mathematics. He had a distinguished undergraduate record and graduated before he was 20. Already at this stage he had started to specialize in geometry, initially stimulated by the lectures of F.P. White and subsequently coming under the influence of the Lowndean Professor H.F. Baker, who became his research supervisor. He was supported by a Trinity College research scholarship and in 1930 he won the coveted Smith's Prize.

Todd's contemporaries at Trinity included a notable group of geometers (H.S.M. Coxeter, F.R.S., W.L. Edge, P. Du Val), all of whom went on to have distinguished careers. At Trinity they formed a closely knit group and all participated regularly in the famous 'Baker tea parties'. These gatherings were officially advertised in the Reporter as 'Conferences on Geometry, Saturday 4.15 p.m.' They were clearly the centre of social and intellectual life and were always fondly remembered in later years by the young men who took part.

After his success with the Smith's Prize, a Research Fellowship at Trinity would have been a natural consequence but, in the annual highly competitive Fellowship competitons, Todd was unsuccessful at all his three attempts. He lost out to his friend Coxeter and also to the brilliant analyst R.E.A.C. Paley who died tragically young in a mountaineering accident.

M F Atiyah

This obituary appeared in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society in November 1996