Sir Edward Wright

Telegraph obituary

Obituaries Index

Sir Edward Wright, the former principal and vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University who died on February 2 aged 98, became one of the country's most distinguished mathematicians, despite being largely self-taught.

During his academic career, Wright worked in the area of Analytic Number Theory, a branch of number theory which uses real and complex analysis to investigate the properties of integers and prime numbers, and was co-author with GH Hardy, his tutor at Oxford, of Introduction to the Theory of Numbers (1938). He was one of the first to work on difference differential equations and later applied analytic methods to graph theory. Apart from a gap during the war, he published steadily from 1930 until 1981.

Edward Maitland Wright was born on February 13 1906 at a small village near Leeds, where his father owned a factory making Wright's Washall Soap. When he was three years old, the soap business collapsed, his parents separated and he and his mother moved south. A music teacher, she supported them both by taking jobs at boarding schools where she could, for a small cut in salary, have her son living with her.

Aged 14, Wright began work as a "pupil teacher" at a small prep school near Woking, where his responsibilities included playing football and teaching French. Until this time, he had learned only basic arithmetic, but when introduced to algebra by a teacher at the school, he was immediately hooked.

By the age of 16, he was teaching French at a school in London, taking evening classes in physics and teaching himself mathematics in his spare time. His contract was abruptly terminated, however, when an inspector reported that he was far too young to be a teacher, and he moved to the more easy-going environment of Somerset where he got a job at Chard Grammar School.

Working on his own, he taught himself for an external degree in Mathematics at the University of London, studying old exam papers, then buying the relevant text books from the secondhand department at Foyle's. He graduated with a First. When a fellow teacher sniffily informed him that a London degree was equivalent only to entrance scholarship standard for Oxford and Cambridge, he decided to investigate the two ancient universities, but found that only Jesus College, Oxford, offered a scholarship that was not restricted to someone under the age of 19. Refusing to be daunted, he entered for the scholarship and won it.

His time at Oxford was happy. He rowed for the college, learned to fly with the university air squadron (though he never learned to drive) and met his future wife, Phyllis Harris, an English student at St Hilda's and cox of the Oxford women's eight. They married in 1934.

Wright stayed on as a research student under G H Hardy and obtained the first ever junior research fellowship awarded by Christ Church. In the early 1930s, just before Hitler came to power, he spent a year at Göttingen University, then a major mathematical centre, and another year lecturing at King's College, London.

In 1935, at the very early age of 29, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Aberdeen University. While this came as no surprise to his colleagues, his wife was not entirely convinced. When she received a telegram from Aberdeen consisting of the single word "Successful", she checked with her local post office because she was afraid they might have omitted the prefix "un".

Wright had returned from Germany convinced that another war was inevitable, and his concern over the dangers of appeasement brought him close to Lord Cherwell (subsequently scientific adviser to Winston Churchill), who was a professor of physics at Oxford.

Partly thanks to his connection with Cherwell, Wright was seconded during the war years to work in Scientific Intelligence at the Air Ministry. One of his first tasks was to tour the stations of Bomber Command to lecture air crew on the German night defences and on plans to disrupt them using metal foil strips.

After the war, he returned to Aberdeen where he became increasingly involved in university administration. In 1961 he was appointed vice-principal, and in 1962 principal and vice-chancellor.

Wright's time as vice-chancellor coincided with a rapid expansion in university education, and he oversaw a major programme of building works. But he always made time for his mathematical studies (in which, for many years, he was funded by the US Army), finding them a welcome and relaxing diversion from his administrative duties. He retired in 1976.

Edward Wright was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, whose Macdougall-Brisbane prize he won in 1952, and a long-serving member of the London Mathematical Society, winning its Senior Berwick Prize in 1978. In the same year he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Order of Polonia Resituta of the Polish People's Republic. He was vice-president of the Royal United Services Institution from 1967 to 1972 and held the distinction of being the longest-serving honorary fellow of Jesus. He was knighted in 1977.

His long and happy marriage to Phyllis ended with her death in 1987. He is survived by their son, John, who, like his father before him, is professor of Mathematics at Aberdeen University.

© Telegraph Group Limited 2005.