Professor Tom Whiteside

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Historian of mathematics who devoted his life to editing the vast Isaac Newton archive of manuscripts in Latin

Professor Tom Whiteside was best known for his scholarly editing of the massive eight-volume work The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton.

Derek Thomas Whiteside was born in Blackpool in 1932, and educated at Blackpool Grammar School and Bristol University, graduating in 1954 with a first in French and Latin. He spent his National Service in the Fifth Royal Tank Regiment as a trooper, serving in Barce, Libya. But his "devouring interest" -- his own words -- was mathematics.

Whiteside was always particularly interested in the mathematics of the 17th century, and in study of primary texts. His application to do research in "the history of mathematical development in the 17th century, especially in England" at Cambridge was accepted. He spent 1956-59 as a research student, working in his first year under Professor Richard Braithwaite and then under Michael Hoskin. He was awarded his PhD for a thesis, "Patterns of Mathematical Thought in the Later 17th Century"; written in 29 days, it was published in the inaugural issue of the journal Archive for the History of the Exact Sciences in 1961.

Whiteside's method of work was to read the originals, in the relevant academic libraries -- the Cambridge University Library, and the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge. During his thesis work he encountered the Portsmouth Collection, the archive of Newton's mathematical papers that had passed via Newton's niece to the family of the Earls of Portsmouth; the fifth Earl donated them to the University of Cambridge in the 19th century. Despite, or because of, the efforts of previous scholars to organise this archive, the material was in a state of confusion. Whiteside threw himself into the study of the Newton papers, which was to become his life's work.

At Hoskin's suggestion, he applied for a Leverhulme Fellowship to continue his study of them in 1959-61. This was followed by a research fellowship from what was then the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1961-63. Whiteside next became first a research assistant in the Whipple Science Museum, 1963-72, and then assistant director of research, 1972-76. While still comparatively unknown, Whiteside had contacted Cambridge University Press in 1960, and offered to edit Newton's mathematical papers -- his unpublished work, principally the Portsmouth Collection -- for them. The offer was accepted, and became Whiteside's overriding focus for more than 20 years. To complete it, Whiteside essentially needed to carry the whole corpus in his head. He became famous for his ability to date a Newton manuscript to within a few years from the handwriting alone.

The first volume appeared in 1967, the eighth and last in 1981. Each is of the order of 600 pages, consisting of a printed version of Newton's handwritten manuscripts, plus extensive footnotes, commentary and introductory text. Whiteside acknowledges the assistance of both Hoskin, his second supervisor, and (later) Adolf Prag, his friend and fellow Newton scholar. No university library is complete without these volumes. Newton being understood from context, it delighted Whiteside to hear them referred to simply as "Whiteside's Papers".

It is perhaps surprising that Cambridge should have had possession of a vast archive of the work of its most famous son, Sir Isaac Newton, for 75 years, without having its contents properly ordered, edited and published. No doubt the sheer scale of the undertaking was one deterrent. But to do justice to this Herculean task, an unusual if not unique combination of skills was required. The book on which Newton's fame rests, the Principia of 1687, was written in Latin. Although Latin remained an entry requirement in Cambridge until the late Sixties, few mathematicians had Latin good enough to pass effortlessly between the two languages in which Newton worked. The content of the work was mathematics, and few Latin scholars had the extent of mathematical knowledge needed to master the substance of the papers. In addition, the reputation of a mathematician rests on his ability to prove new results, and few mathematicians were prepared to divert years, even decades, of effort to history of mathematics, which, while certainly of interest, was unlikely to advance them professionally. An honourable exception here was H. W. Turnbull, who came to Newton studies too late in his life to be able to tackle the Portsmouth Collection; he did, however, befriend and encourage the young Whiteside.

Academic security came late to Whiteside, with a university readership in the history of mathematics, 1976-87, in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, and then a university professorship in the history of mathematics and the exact sciences, in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, from 1987 to his retirement in 1999. But academic recognition came sooner. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1975, and was at that time the youngest FBA; he also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lancaster in 1987, and other academic prizes and distinctions.

A festschrift in his honour was published in 1992 on his 60th birthday; its title, The Investigation of Difficult Things, is taken from a quotation from Newton's Opticks. Whiteside was recognised as the foremost historian of mathematics of his generation, and the leading authority on Newton.

Whiteside married Ruth Isabel Robinson, also from Blackpool, in 1962; she died in 1999. The marriage produced a son and a daughter, both of whom took first class honours degrees at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Professor Tom Whiteside, historian of mathematics, was born on July 23, 1932. He died on April 22, 2008, aged 75
The Times, May 7, 2008 © The Times, 2008