Obituary: Charles Burkill

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The Independent Online
John Charles Burkill, mathematician: born 1 February 1900; Professor of Pure Mathematics, Liverpool University 1924- 29; Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge 1929-67, Master 1968-73; FRS 1953; married 1928 Margareta Braun (died 1984; one son, and two daughters deceased); died Cambridge 6 April 1993.

CHARLES BURKILL was a distinguished mathematical analyst, known particularly for his work on what is now called the Burkill integral. It was no doubt for this work that he was elected FRS in 1953. From 1968 to 1973 he was Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Burkill went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, from St Paul's School, London, to read Mathematics. He obtained First Class Honours in Part I of the Mathematical Tripos in 1919, and was classed as a Wrangler in Part II in 1931, with a distinction in Schedule B. He then began research under the supervision of the eccentric Samuel Pollard. After the latter's death, Burkill wrote in his obituary notice of Pollard that 'to any young analyst he was the most encouraging teacher imaginable', but there is evidence that in Burkill's own case Pollard was, to say the least, discouraging. However, Burkill did well and was appointed a Fellow of Trinity in 1922 and was awarded a Smith's Prize the following year.

In 1924 he went to Liverpool as Professor of Pure Mathematics, but returned to Cambridge five years later, for personal reasons. He migrated from Trinity to Peterhouse, where he was successively Fellow, Senior Tutor, Master and Honorary Fellow. Apart from visits to the United States and India, the remainder of his life from 1929 was spent in Cambridge, where he served as a University Lecturer, and later as Reader in Mathematical Analysis.

His main mathematical subjects of interest were the Theory of Integration, and Fourier Series. The Burkill integral for which he is known was a generalisation of the Lebesgue integral. He shared the Adams Prize in 1949 with three other mathematicians; this is a prize awarded every two years by Cambridge University to a Cambridge graduate for an essay of distinction in pure mathematics, astronomy or natural philosophy.

I first met Burkill in my second term in Cambridge in January 1935, when I attended his Part II lectures on Infinite Series. He was an excellent lecturer, very relaxed and with a slightly bored (but not boring) manner. His treatment of the subject was concise and required work by his audience to fill in proofs only partly sketched. The qualities of brevity and conciseness he displayed in his books, his letters, his conversation and in his entries in Who's Who. But he was never dull, and his writing and conversation contained flashes of humour and wit.

In 1928 he married Greta Braun. Her father was a celebrated German journalist and her mother was Russian. When later her mother married an Englishman, Greta moved with her to England. Because of her international background, Greta was fully aware of the misery caused by the persecution of Jews and others in Germany, and she became a leading figure in helping refugees. The number of people that she and Charles helped was enormous. Among these were two well-known mathematicians, Harry Reuter (the son of the Socialist Mayor of Magdeburg), later professor at Imperial College, and Harry Burkill (of Sheffield University), who took Charles's surname by deed poll.

Later Greta turned her attention to the lack of facilities for graduate students and academic visitors in Cambridge and it was largely due to her influence that the Graduate Society was set up and premises found. She was a formidable fighter against bureaucracy in all its forms and was prepared to adopt somewhat unorthodox methods to further her aims. She and Charles were in temperament completely different, but he gave her his full support in all her efforts. She once said, with truth, 'Fortunately I have a wonderfully patient husband.' She died in 1984.

A life full of charitable work, combined with college and university teaching and administrative duties did not leave Burkill much time for mathematics in his later years. Possibly his last publication of mathematical interest was his well-written obituary notice of his distinguished older colleague JE Littlewood, which appeared in 1979.

(Photograph omitted)