Obituary: Bertha Jeffreys

BERTHA SWIRLES, Lady Jeffreys, did important research on quantum theory, particularly in its early days, and her association with Girton College, Cambridge, as student and Fellow, spanned more than 70 years.

Born in Northampton in 1903, she was involved in the world of education from her earliest days. Her widowed mother was a primary-school teacher and various aunts were also teachers. She attended Northampton School for Girls and then went up to Girton, in 1921, to read Mathematics, graduating with first class Honours.

She became a research student of R.H. Fowler, one of a distinguished company of his students which included several Nobel prizewinners such as P.A.M. Dirac and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. She spent the winter semester of 1927-28 in Gottingen, where she worked under Max Born and Werner Heisenberg and interacted with many of the other leading continental workers in the relatively new field of quantum mechanics; it was an exciting time.

By the time she was awarded her PhD in 1929, she was already an Assistant Lecturer in Manchester. This was followed by similar appointments in Bristol and at Imperial College, London, and then in 1933 she returned to Manchester as a Lecturer in Applied Mathematics. Douglas Hartree at Manchester was extremely sorry to lose such a valued colleague when she returned to Cambridge in 1938, to an Official Fellowship and Lectureship in Mathematics at Girton.

In Cambridge, Bertha Swirles continued to publish important papers on quantum theory, but her most widely known publication is the enormously influential text Methods of Mathematical Physics, written with Harold Jeffreys, whom she had married in 1940. It was first published in 1946 and, after many editions and revisions, it was reprinted a few weeks ago, with a delightful picture of Bertha and Harold on the back cover. It has educated many generations of students and is still a recommended text for several undergraduate mathematics courses in Cambridge today. The book covers a huge amount of material and is written with great clarity (and even humour, in the choice of quotations at the start of each chapter). It was the fruit of many years of work.

Subsequently Bertha Jeffreys's research interests broadened to include seismology in collaboration with her husband, who was by then Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge. He was knighted in 1953. Theirs was a long and happy marriage, the main bone of contention seeming to be whether he should still be cycling in his shorts in his eighties. He died in 1989 when he was almost 98.

Bertha felt an immense loyalty to Girton and played a very active role there, holding a large variety of college offices at various times, including that of Vice-Mistress from 1966 to 1969. She will perhaps be remembered most in her capacity of Director of Studies in Mathematics, a post she held from 1949 to 1969. This involved selecting, advising and teaching generations of women mathematicians, who have themselves gone on to propagate her influence to ever wider circles. Her supervisions were informative, stimulating and enjoyable (even when the students was referred firmly to Fowler's Use of English) and she had an intuitive sense of the particular difficulties each individual faced.

She took a personal and warm interest in all her students and there was often "open house" for them on Sunday evenings at the Jeffreys residence halfway between Girton and the centre of Cambridge. Her interest did not cease when students left Cambridge; she and Harold had no children, but there was an enormous extended family based on her former pupils. She had an amazing memory for the details of their lives. When their children and grandchildren arrived in Cambridge as students themselves, they would be invited to tea. This used to involve sampling Bertha's homemade flapjack whilst Sir Harold sat on the floor doing the Times crossword. Many a younger child received an imaginatively chosen birthday gift from Auntie Bertha.

Not suffering fools gladly made Bertha Jeffreys seem a little formidable to some. She set the highest standards for herself and expected others to do the same. Her advice was never stereotyped; she approached each problem with an open mind, coupled with sensitivity and an enormous amount of common sense. Although she was sometimes a little irritated by activities for women mathematicians, feeling that progress would come from women doing good mathematics rather than spending time pondering their difficulties, she was always extremely supportive of individuals.

Music was an important part of her life. She was an accomplished pianist and cellist, and still played piano duets with a friend in her nineties, when she also still regularly attended concerts in college and at Kettle's Yard.

Bertha Jeffreys played a leading role in women's education this century, and she inspired students of mathematics world-wide. It is a pity that only after her husband's death did she receive honorary doctorates, from the University of Saskatchewan in 1995 and the Open University in 1996. This recognition of her would have given him great pleasure.

Her colleagues, pupils and friends will miss her wisdom and her generosity, her "unstuffy" approach to life and her sense of fun. Her 90th birthday lunch was attended by about 140 of her former pupils and colleagues from several continents, a fitting tribute to a very special teacher and friend.

R. M. Williams

Bertha Swirles, mathematician: born Northampton 22 May 1903; Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge 1938-69 (Life Fellow 1969), Director of Studies in Mathematics 1949-69, Vice-Mistress 1966-69; married 1940 Harold Jeffreys (Kt 1953, died 1989); died Cambridge 18 December 1999.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Arts and Entertainment
OutKast's Andre 3000 as Jimi Hendrix

film
Arts and Entertainment
Columnist and writer Caitlin Moran

Review: How to Build a Girl

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil