H. Martyn Cundy

Inspirational teacher behind the School Mathematics Project

The School Mathematics Project, which radically changed the course of mathematics teaching in Britain, had its origins in an Oxford conference of 1959 and another held two years later in Southampton, but its impetus came from a meeting between four men in a Winchester garden in September 1961. They were H. Martyn Cundy, Tom Jones, Douglas Quadling and Professor (later Sir) Bryan Thwaites.

Henry Martyn Cundy, educator and mathematician: born Derby 23 December 1913; Assistant Master, Sherborne School 1938-66; Deputy Director, School Mathematics Project 1967-68; Professor of Mathematics, University of Malawi 1968-75; married 1938 Kathleen Hemmings (died 1992; three sons); died Kendal 25 February 2005.

The School Mathematics Project, which radically changed the course of mathematics teaching in Britain, had its origins in an Oxford conference of 1959 and another held two years later in Southampton, but its impetus came from a meeting between four men in a Winchester garden in September 1961. They were H. Martyn Cundy, Tom Jones, Douglas Quadling and Professor (later Sir) Bryan Thwaites.

Eight schools led the way over the next 12 months in which SMP was established - Sherborne School (where Cundy was Senior Mathematics Master), Winchester College (where Jones served in the same capacity, and Thwaites had taught until 1959), Marlborough College (where Quadling was Senior Mathematics Master), Battersea Grammar School, Charterhouse, Exeter School, Holloway School and Winchester County School for Girls. Thwaites, Professor of Theoretical Mechanics at Southampton University, was the SMP's founding Director.

Martyn Cundy was both a remarkable teacher and person. This became apparent to me in 1962, when, as editor of SMP, I began to visit the eight founding schools. On one day of my visit to Sherborne, Cundy had no school commitments and we spent the day walking in south Dorset. It was one of the most invigorating and intellectually enjoyable days I have ever had. I realised that I was in the company of someone quite outstanding, with knowledge and interests extending far beyond mathematics, and who, within mathematics, possessed an enviable ability to structure and make connections between various topics and to communicate his thoughts with great fluency and clarity.

Henry Martyn Cundy was born in Derby in 1913, and named after Henry Martyn, the 19th-century divine and missionary, from whose half-brother he was descended. Henry Martyn was not only distinguished as a theologian, but also had been Senior Wrangler in Mathematics at Cambridge in 1801 and, when Chaplain to the East India Company, had translated the New Testament into Urdu and Persian. Martyn Cundy was, it transpired, to have more in common with him than merely his Christian names.

Cundy's father was an evangelical clergyman in the Church of England who believed in not staying too long in any one parish. This meant that Martyn was continually on the move as a boy, before going to Monkton Combe School in 1927 as a boarder. He obtained Higher School Certificate distinctions in Mathematics, Divinity, Latin and Greek, but it was to read Mathematics rather than Classics that he went up as a scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1932. There he obtained a first class degree, began research work in quantum theory, won a Rayleigh prize in 1937, and was awarded a PhD in 1938.

Having demonstrated such academic ability Cundy might have been expected to find a post within a university, but he opted to teach and moved to Sherborne, where he remained until 1966. While at Cambridge, he had met Kittie Hemmings, another mathematics student and later teacher, and they married in 1939.

It was the publication, with A.P. Rollett, of the book Mathematical Models, that first brought Cundy's name to the attention of mathematics teachers. First published in 1951, it is, remarkably, still in print. A teacher in Northern Ireland, reviewing it for Amazon in 2000, describes it as "a masterpiece, a jewel . . . A mathematician's playground and a mathematics teacher's dream!"

Cundy's writing for schools was to become even more influential through his work for the School Mathematics Project. SMP's treatment of geometry in its first trial texts, an attempt to move away from diluted Euclid to "transformation geometry", was neither successful in the classroom nor liked. It contained many valuable ideas, but lacked coherence and clear mathematical goals (criticisms equally valid of geometry in today's National Curriculum). Cundy took the matter in hand and within a few weeks produced an outstanding treatment in which geometry and algebra teaching were united in a purposeful manner.

His writings are distinguished by their clarity and humour and the way in which what other authors treated as abstract mathematics is linked with the world and mechanisms with which students are familiar. (Articles which he published in the Mathematical Gazette drew their inspiration from such sources as the Anglepoise lamp, the bascule bridge and reel-to-reel tape recorders.) Yet he presented "genuine" mathematics and not a watered-down version that would have to be rethought by students going on to study the subject at university.

Both SMP and the Mathematical Gazette used Cundy's editorial talents. After leaving Sherborne he was appointed Deputy Director of SMP and edited both volumes of its Advanced Mathematics (1968). Over many years he was to contribute more than 50 articles and notes to the Gazette - one of which has still to appear. (A 2003 paper was voted "article of the year".) He also contributed longer research papers to the Journal of Geometry - again one will appear posthumously.

Cundy was not a great committee man - he found time spent doing mathematics far more rewarding. (How would he have coped with teaching nowadays?) He was fortunate to work at a time when schoolteachers could innovate, could experiment in their classrooms and, when happy with the outcomes, could incorporate their ideas in texts that other teachers might use and build upon. Determining a curriculum in committee, without trials and with immediate application throughout the educational system would not have appealed to him.

In 1968 Cundy was to accept a further challenge, as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Malawi. There, despite occasional brushes with Hastings Banda, he and Kittie spent seven happy years. On his retirement from Malawi he carried out two overseas evaluations of mathematics projects for the British Council, in Swaziland and Lesotho and in the Caribbean.

Yet to think of Martyn Cundy simply as an inspirational mathematics teacher is to present a far from complete picture of the man. Like Henry Martyn, he was a devoted and highly active Christian. For over 60 years he was secretary of the 1934 Cambridge Prayer Fellowship, composed of graduate contemporaries in the Christian Union. He was the author of a small book, The Faith of a Christian, written for the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in 1945. Before and after the Second World War he was active in Christian youth work and, as if to demonstrate what ecumenical might really mean, he was a Methodist local preacher while at Sherborne (yet still an active member of the local Anglican church), an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi and, on his move to Kendal, an Anglican lay reader.

A keen mountain walker, he produced, with Kittie, a Guide for Walkers on Zomba Mountain, Malawi; he was an enthusiastic singer (at 90 he was still an active member of the Burneside Choral Society), musician (organist at St Thomas' Church, Kendal) and poet (winner of the Diocese of Carlisle 850th Anniversary Hymn Writing Competition). Yet he was always unassuming - one constantly learned from him, but he never set out to dominate or impress.

His interests and influence live on in his three sons, Ian, the Bishop of Peterborough, and David and Tim, both distinguished teachers of mathematics.

Geoffrey Howson