WHEN Charles Burkill gave up his Professorship of Mathematics at Liverpool in 1929, he returned to a Cambridge accurately pictured by CP Snow, and now almost totally vanished, writes Professor Jacques Heyman.
His college offices at Peterhouse, and above all his tutorship, gave him a security and social standing equal to or greater than that of a university professor; indeed to be a don was to have a college fellowship, rather than the university lectureship (an office only recently established) that he also held. Certainly, Burkill's devotion was to his subject (to which he contributed significantly, leading to his election to the Royal Society) and to his college; his wife Greta's concern was with the university.
Burkill brought to the tutorship an uncompromising austerity, coupled with kindness and a deep understanding of people. In his 20-year tenure of the office he maintained rigorously the intellectual standards of the college, and he guided its intellectual life through the dark days of the Second World War. The governing body was effectively reduced to four Fellows at that time: Roy Lubbock, an engineer, as Senior Bursar, looking after its material needs; Brian Wormald, a historian, as Dean, seeing to the spirit; and Herbert Butterfield, a professor of history, later to be Master of the college immediately before Burkill. Between them these four ensured that the college survived, and affirmed its pre-eminence in history, engineering, natural science and mathematics; in the 1940s there were five professors of history who were fellows of the college - now there are three professors of engineering.
In 1968 Burkill was too old according to the statutes of Peterhouse to be elected Master; the college, perhaps improperly but certainly unanimously, altered the statutes to secure his election.
He led the college with the same qualities he had shown as Tutor, with a rejection of unnecessary comment that bordered sometimes on total silence. As a single instance, Greta had for a long time objected to colleges' charging fees to graduate students for which they gave little in return; with Burkill's help, the then Senior Bursar abolished graduate fees in Peterhouse. A year later Greta still had not been told of this - Burkill was waiting for a suitable occasion.