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Alexander Aitken (1895-1967)

Regarded as one of New Zealand's greatest mathematicians and Chair of Mathematics at the University from 1946 to 1965.

Alexander Aitken

Aitken was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 1 April 1895, the eldest child of William Aitken and Elizabeth Towers. His grandfather, Alexander Aitken, had emigrated from Lanarkshire, Scotland to Otago in 1868.

Aitken's gifts in both mathematics and music were clear from an early age. A talented violinist, Aitken's memory for figures and skills as a calculator became obvious when he assisted his father in his grocer's shop (in later life, he could recite Pi to one thousand places). He was an exceptional student, winning several class prizes and graduating top of his class at Otago Boys School. In 1913, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend Otago University, studying Mathematics and Languages (Latin and French). His experience of Mathematics at University was unpleasant, although he met his future wife there, Mary Winifred Betts, a brilliant botanist credited with establishing the Botany department at Otago.

Like many of his contemporaries, Aitken's studies were interrupted by World War I, during which he served in France. Aitken was badly injured in the Somme, and was invalided home to New Zealand in 1917. His experiences of war affected him profoundly for the rest of his life, and he recalled them in the highly regarded memoir 'Gallipoli to the Somme' (1963).

The University

After graduating from Otago, Aitken accepted a postgraduate scholarship, and began working at the University of Edinburgh under Professor Edmund Taylor Whittaker (1873-1956). During the course of his studies, Aitken's wife became pregnant with their first child, and he began to show signs of the mental illness which would blight his later years. His research was not prospering, and he began to fear he would be unable to submit his PhD on time. Weeks of illness followed, though in the course of his treatment, Aitken found the solution to his problem almost instantaneously, and managed to submit his thesis on time. The thesis was awarded the DSc rather than the PhD, an honour which both pleased and surprised Aitken, particularly since his illness had necessitated submitting the thesis hurriedly.

On the completion of his DSc, Aitken was appointed Lecturer in Actuarial Mathematics at Edinburgh University. In 1936, he was named Reader in Statistics. In 1946, he succeeded Whittaker in the Chair of Mathematics, where he remained until he retired in 1965.

Aitken befriended Walter Ledermann (1911-2009) as a visiting student and introduced him to Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson (1881-1955), holder of the Bell Chair of Education at the University of Edinburgh, and Director of Edinburgh Provincial Training Centre (later Moray House College of Education). Thomson employed Ledermann as a mathematical assistant on the Carnegie-funded project that led to his seminal book The Factorial Analysis of Human Ability.


Aitken was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh at the age of thirty, shortly after the completion of his DSc. The Society awarded him its Makdougall-Brisbane Prize in 1933 and, its higest award, the Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize in 1953. Aitken was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (London) in 1936. Following the publication of his war memoir, Gallipoli to the Somme, he was elected to the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.