Obituary: Ivor Bulmer-Thomas

David Fowler
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:11

IT IS perhaps inevitable that, with someone whose interest are as wide and deep as those of Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, there are things that cannot be covered within the compass of a short obituary (by Matthew Saunders, 8 October), but one omission was astonishing: there was no mention that he was a renowned expert on ancient and medieval mathematics, writes David Fowler.

He published the invaluable two-volume Selections Illustrating the History of Greek Mathematics in 1939 and 1941 in the Loeb Classical Library, still in print and still a standard reference; he contributed very many substantial articles to the comprehensive and authoritative Dictionary of Scientific Biography published by Scribners of New York in 1970; he wrote the section on Greek geometry in a German Geschichte der Algebra (1990) in the Lehrbucher zur Didaktik der Mathematik alongside nine other contributors who were barely half his age; he was a frequent reviewer for Classical Reviews on ancient science and mathematics; and he contributed articles to learned journals and encylopaedias.

He came from the tradition of non-university-based scholars in this area that stretches back through Sir Thomas Heath, Paul Tanney, and JL Heiberg, but was right up to the moment with the latest developments in the subject, ready to encourage, to help, and occasionally to rebuke in his always courteous and warm letters. My own last letter from him was concerned with an error in the current issue of Historia Mathematica, an error the author would not have fallen into had he consulted Bulmer-Thomas's own treatment of his Loeb volumes; the very next day I was shocked to hear of this death. The same letter included, in passing, in connection with another name, 'I am just refreshing my memory of the theory of relativity.'

When Warwick University awarded him an honorary DSc in 1979 it was at the instigation of the Mathematics Department, where a photograph of the ceremony now hangs alongside other mathematicians so honoured. The University Orator was clearly impressed, and opened his encomium: 'Francis Bacon has it that histories make men wise; the mathematics, subtile. In Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, a historian of mathematics, these two qualities stand beside many others evidenced in a life lived to the full.'

In another letter he chided me for opening an article with a critical opinion of a section of Newton's Principia: 'I have met Plank, conversed with Einstein, and known Gowland Hopkins and Rutherford, but I will continue to regard Newton as the supreme genius.'

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