Edward Wright

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Self-taught mathematician who co-authored the mainstay textbook in his field and became an excellent university administrator.

SIR EDWARD WRIGHT was best known as co-author, with G. H. Hardy (1877-1947, the greatest British mathematician of the past century), of "Hardy and Wright", An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers. A highly influential mathematical textbook, from its first edition in 1938 (its fifth was in 1979), it has been a mainstay of the textbook literature in the subject ever since.

Wright's research career was strikingly long (from 1931 to the early 1980s) and productive (more than 140 papers). He was primarily a number theorist, particularly interested in additive number theory. This is the study of the number of ways in which natural numbers (positive integers -ordinary whole numbers) can be represented as sums of other such numbers (the theory of partitions), or of specified numbers of squares or cubes, etc. (Waring's problem and its generalisations).

The techniques required for this led him into asymptotics ("behaviour at infinity"). Later, he became interested in graphs (patterns of points joined by lines, or of vertices joined by edges), in particular enumerative problems for graphs, and random graphs.

Wright became Professor of Mathematics at the University of Aberdeen at the unusually early age of 29, in 1936. He held this post till 1962 (apart from secondment to war work). He then became Principal and Vice- Chancellor, a post he held till his retirement in 1976. He was knighted in 1977.

Edward Maitland Wright was born in 1906 in a village near Leeds, to a well-to do businessman father and a music-teacher mother. The family business collapsed when Wright was 3, and his parents separated. He followed his mother in her teaching career in boarding schools, through which she was able to support his education.

He supported himself from the age of 14, teaching French (and playing football with the pupils).

Around this time, he was introduced to mathematics (he had previously encountered only arithmetic) and science, by which he became fascinated and which he learnt by himself and in evening classes. He was dismissed from one French-teaching post at 16, for being "far too young". He then obtained a teaching post at Chard Grammar School in Somerset. There, having no laboratory facilities, he redoubled his efforts to teach himself mathematics, and achieved first-class honours in mathematics as an external candidate at the University of London.

A Cambridge-educated colleague snootily compared this achievement to entrance scholarship standard for Oxford or Cambridge. Stung by this, Wright applied for - and won -the only scholarship in either university then open to candidates over the age of 19, at Jesus College, Oxford.

Wright's time at Oxford was very happy and productive. He met his future wife Phyllis. He became a research student of Hardy, and wrote his DPhil dissertation under his supervision. He obtained the first junior research fellowship ("research lectureship" in those days) at Christ Church, began to publish mathematical research and laid the foundations for "Hardy and Wright".

He spent a year at Gottingen University, then a mathematical centre of world class, just before Hitler came to power. Alerted by this experience to the Nazi menace, he became close to Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who was then at Christ Church and subsequently became Churchill's scientific adviser during the war, and his pupil R.V.Jones, later a wartime scientific intelligence expert.

Academic recognition came early, with the chair at Aberdeen in 1936. Later, when war broke out, he was -through his connection with Lindemann and Jones seconded to work in scientific intelligence at the Air Ministry in London.

Senior mathematicians fall broadly into two categories. Some are so otherworldly as to conform to the stereotype views of the man in the street towards mathematicians, and in particular make poor administrators. Others, through the disciplined approach, clear and logical thinking and familiarity with figures that their subject compels, excel at organisation and make excellent administrators.

Wright belonged to the latter category, and this led to his appointment as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen in 1962. Wright led the university through the hectic period of expansion in the 1960s, but he retired before the first wave of cuts in the 1980s. His services to the University of Aberdeen are commemorated in the Edward Wright Building there, where the Department of Mathematics was based till 1997.

He could be harsh and dictatorial. One distinguished academic remembers being interviewed for his first post; he was offered the job by Wright at the end of the interview, and asked for his decision there and then. Being unprepared for this, he asked for some time to consider. Wright replied that he could say yes or no forthwith, or the job would be offered to the second-ranked candidate. A decision was extracted from the candidate on the spot.

One theory regarding this trait was that Wright had gone to Aberdeen expecting to return in triumph to Oxford or Cambridge, and on realising that he would retire from Aberdeen, had vented his frustrations by being determined at least to be master in his own house. No doubt the privations of his early life helped to shape this side of his character.

Wright was widely honoured. In addition to his knighthood, he held numerous honorary degrees, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was a long-serving member of the London Mathematical Society (elected in 1929) and had been an honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, since 1963.

His wife died in 1987. He is survived by his son John, Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen.

Sir Edward Wright, mathematician and Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Aberdeen, 1962-76, was born on February 13, 1906. He died on February 2, 2005, aged 98.

Copyright (C) The Times, 2005