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Durham University News


Thomas James Willmore, MSc, PhD, DSc, FIMA

(24 February 2005)

The University announces with deep regret the death of Emeritus Professor Tom Willmore on Sunday 20 February 2005.

Death of respected and renowned Professor of Mathematics

Professor Tom Willmore( 16 April 1919 – 20 February 2005), a much respected and internationally renowned Mathematician who made a major contribution to differential geometry, has died aged 85.

Professor Willmore was a Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Durham University for many years and built it up to become one of the strongest departments in the UK. His eminence in the field of differential geometry was widely acknowledged among his academic peers both in this country, and abroad.

His work on the geometry of minimal surfaces in Riemannian 3 – space, became established in academic literature. Willmore Surfaces and the the Willmore Conjecture are well known mathematical concepts.

In a long and distinguished academic career spanning more than six decades his mathematical prowess was widely respected, especially on the Continent and he was a Member of the Royal Society of Belgium.

His long connection with Durham began with a lectureship in 1946 after earlier graduating from King’s College, London. He was appointed Professor of Pure Mathematics at Durham in 1965 and held this post until his retirement in 1984. He was Vice-President of the London Mathematics Society for a number of years.

He was the first Professor of Mathematics anywhere in the country to have been appointed without an Oxbridge background. He went to King’s College because although he got into Cambridge he did not realise that he could have taken out a bank loan to meet the expenses as he came from a family without any experience of university education at that time.

His widow Dr. Gillian Boughton, Vice Principal of St. Mary’s College, Durham University, recounts that he left Durham in 1953 to join Liverpool University mainly because of a difference of view with the Professor of Mathematics in Durham of the day, who had been wounded in the First World War and refused to order any book written in the German language for the University Library.

Tom’s Phd, written ‘in his spare time’ during the war, was on Relativistic Cosmology – he had heard Einstein lecture and was keen to read his writing, which at that time was published in German.

He worked as a Scientific Officer during World War Two at RAF Cardington chiefly on barrage balloon defences. He was by nature terrified of heights, and though he knew more about the resistance of fabrics than most scientists in England, he had a thin strip of linen prepared by the medical officer to be stretched under his feet so that he could conduct scientific observations at the top of balloon hangars without looking down and seeing the floor, though he knew well that if he had fallen, the strip would not have saved him.

He once spent an hour a mile up in the sky strapped to the fin of a barrage balloon above the ground alone taking measurements in clear weather when an air raid alarm sounded. He picked up the field telephone which had been threaded through the cable to contact the men on the ground to winch him down. Silence. They had all dashed for cover into an air raid shelter and forgot he was up there!

Dr. Boughton recalls that her husband was the first scientist to take measurements of the V1 ‘Flying Bomb' in order to adapt the barrage defences of London to the new deadly development of an unmanned bomb. The concept was to explode the bomb when contact was made with the balloon cable. 747 V1s were brought down in this way.

Tom was a personal friend of the Mathematician Sir Edward Collingwood who gave his name to Collingwood College. Professor Willmore secured for Durham the Collingwood Library in the Maths Department and the wooden bookshelves which were originally made from the timbers of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory. Admiral Lord Collingwood was an ancestor of Sir Edward Collingwood.

Colleague and friend Dr. John Bolton, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences said:”Tom will be remembered by countless students for his exuberant lecturing style and his enthusiasm for mathematics. This, together with his lively sense of humour and his gift for communicating, came over very strongly whenever he lectured and at whatever level. “

“All in all, Tom had a unique talent to get people interested in mathematics. Everyone felt very easy in his company. These qualities, together with his humility, were among the reasons why so many were influenced by his work.”

His love of mathematics never left him, and long past his retirement age he maintained his creativity and his wonder at the beauty of mathematics. He was in the final stages of writing his fifth book on his specialism of differential geometry. As one reviewer noted, his books are `written in a delightfully readable fashion'.

In addition to his direct academic contributions, Professor Willmore was primarily responsible for bringing to Durham in 1974 an internationally famous and very prestigious series of conferences called the LMS Durham Symposia, of which there have been 80 to date.

The funeral of Professor Willmore takes place on Monday 28th February at 11.45 a.m. in Durham Cathedral, followed by Durham Crematorium at 1.00 p.m. Family flowers only by request. Donations in memory of Professor Willmore to support studentships in Pure Mathematics can be made to : “University of Durham Willmore Fund”, University of Durham, PO Box 43, DURHAM DH1 3YA.

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