We’re very sad to report that Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw passed away at a nursing home on Sunday aged 101. Dame Ollerenshaw has been an Honorary member of the Society since 1981 and will be sorely missed. There will be a memorial service at Manchester Cathedral to be arranged for a later date.
Below is an obituary for Dame Ollerenshaw written by Ray King who has very kindly given us permission to reproduce.
Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, one of the most illustrious Mancunians of her era and honorary member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, has died in a city nursing home. She was 101.
It was typical of her irrepressible spirit and determination of that she attributed pre-eminence in her beloved pursuit of mathematics to a profound handicap. In 1921, at the age of eight, a combination of a viral infection and family history left her almost completely deaf. But she resolved to overcome all odds and succeeded beyond measure – as one of the country’s most distinguished exponents of mathematics and statistics, a leading educationalist and, before World War II, an accomplished sportswoman in a number of disciplines.
And when, challenged by an old school friend in a chance encounter in Manchester city centre – “What are you doing for your fellow men?” – she entered public life in the 1950s and commanded widespread respect in the political and academic arenas, winning early acclaim for her exposure of the shocking state of England’s school buildings and as a resolute champion of education for girls.
Mathematics was one of four “Ms” that defined Dame Kathleen’s life with music, mountains and Manchester; there has been no prouder holder of the office of Lord Mayor or recipient of the Freedom of the City. With those honours came a clear sense of duty and responsibility, which, combined with waspish wit and an infectious sense of humour, made her an immensely popular First Citizen.
Her passion for mathematical problem solving continued into her mid-nineties despite the added handicap of worsening eyesight which, coming on top of her deafness, she regarded as a “maddening frustration – a double whammy”. Nonetheless she resolved to live life to the full, continuing to attend civic and academic ceremonies and, remarkably, being awarded a prestigious prize by the editors of Mathematics Today for an article about her pet subject, magic squares, at the age of almost 95. Famously she was one of the first to produce formula for solving Rubik’s cube from a random start with an average 80 moves – at the cost of requiring surgery for tendonitis in her thumb.
The cube triggered her enduring fascination with magic squares and on a train journey between Manchester and Crewe she identified an error in the 22nd edition of W W Rouse Ball’s classic textbook, Mathematical Recreations and Essays, originally written around 1900.
She was born Kathleen Mary Timpson on 1st October 1912 at 1 Parkgate Avenue, Withington, Manchester, younger daughter of Charles and Mary Timpson, members of the famous shoe dynasty. Her father was the sixth of 12 children of William Timpson who founded the company in Kettering, Northants, in 1870.
From the age of six she attended Ladybarn House School, Withington, where she acquired her knowledge and love of mathematics and first met her future husband, Robert Ollerenshaw, who was born in nearby Palatine Road. In 1926 Kathleen followed her sister Betty, four years her senior, to St Leonard’s School, St Andrews in Scotland as a boarder (she became member of the school’s governing council and president from 1972-2006) where her interest in mathematics – “the one subject in which I was at no disadvantage” – intensified as a result of her deafness.
Kathleen won an Open Scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford and, after lip-reading through her interview – she refused to learn sign language, considering it too restrictive – began her degree course in mathematics at the age of 19.
But it wasn’t all academe…She re-encountered Robert who was at Oxford studying physiology, got engaged in her first year and embraced sports with gusto. She won her hockey “Blue” against Cambridge, captained Oxford in her last two years and on leaving university, represented Lancashire, the North of England and England Reserves “until everything stopped” in 1939. Kathleen also became a skilled ice skater, becoming runner up in the “very sedate” English Style British Pairs Championship in 1939, and an accomplished skier from regular trips to the mountains of Tyrol and the Dolomites between 1933 and the eve of war. She caught a close up glimpse of Adolf Hitler as he drove by in open car on the final day of the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmische-Partenkirchen in Austria. “If I’d had a bomb I would have thrown it,” she said later.
She graduated from Somerville in 1933, later finding work at the Shirley Institute, the textile research establishment in Didsbury, deploying her skills in statistical forecasting on which her reputation was forged.
After their eight-year engagement, Kathleen and Robert were married during the first week of the war and he left Manchester immediately to serve with the medical corps later being posted to North Africa and Palestine. After the war he became a leading radiologist and a pioneer of medical illustration.
Kathleen left the Shirley on the birth of their son Charles in 1941, but two years later was persuaded to return to Somerville by Kurt Mahler, a renowned mathematician who had come to Manchester from Germany in 1938. He had been impressed by her finding the answer to an unsolved problem on critical lattices, an area combining number theory and geometry, within a few days. Her return to Oxford wasn’t straightforward and, as a reserved scientist requiring to be away from home for six weeks at a time, she boarded a train for London and took her request for written permission literally to the door of the wartime Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, in The Strand.
While working as a temporary wartime don she wrote five original research papers, earning her a DPhil degree, conferred in 1945. For the next seven years she raised her two children, a daughter, Florence, having been born in 1946, keeping up with her mathematical research and occasionally filling in as a part-time lecturer in mathematics at Manchester University. Then, in 1953, just four years after obtaining her first “crude but wonderful” hearing aid, came the chance meeting with fellow St Leonard’s old girl Isabel Graham-Bryce, wife of eminent thoracic surgeon Alexander Graham Bryce and the challenge to “do something for the community…”
Kathleen found herself asked to address a meeting of the National Council of Women and her talk on the bad conditions of many of the older schools in Manchester eventually led her to a detailed statistical study of the conditions of school buildings throughout England. The success of her 1955 report in releasing government funds for school capital building programmes strengthened her belief that successfully influencing governments on social issues could only be achieved on the basis of accurately established numerical facts, not on mere opinions and protest. It also opened the doors to her involvement in a broad range of educational issues.
She was appointed a co-opted member of Manchester education committee in 1954 and two years later won Rusholme ward for the Conservative Party and remained a city councillor for 25 years. In 1960 she was invited to serve on the Central Advisory Council for Education – later known as the Newsom Committee – charged with considering the education of 11- 15 year old pupils of average and less than average ability. Three years later, as a member of a delegation from the British Association for Commercial and Industrial Education, she spent three weeks in the Soviet Union visiting technical colleges, schools, and universities.
In a keynote article for a national newspaper on her return she noted that the system of selection for Russian technical schools was far more rigorous than anything applied in the pre-comprehensive UK. As a reward for writing the piece as a Manchester councillor the city’s controlling Labour group booted her off every educational body on which she represented the town hall. Her response was typical; it was the best thing that ever happened, she insisted, having been invited back without exception in her own right. “From then on I could do or say anything I wanted,” she recalled.
But Kathleen, privately educated like most of the Newsom Committee members, was shocked by the state of many secondary moderns in England and Wales with their “abysmally low standards” and inadequate teaching. She confessed that the lack of mathematics had “frightened” her and though she was an admirer of Manchester’s nine state grammar schools and technical schools and supporter of direct grant schools, she accepted that the introduction of a comprehensive system with no selection by ability was inevitable.
Despite her misgivings about the comprehensive plan for Manchester – cobbled together at the third attempt – it fell to her to oversee its implementation, having become education committee chairman in 1967 following the Conservatives’ taking control of the city that year. She resisted strident demands from within her own party to reverse the plan on the grounds that it would be irresponsible; new appointments had been made and pupils allocated their places. She opted instead for that she saw as “damage limitation” and a commitment to making the scheme work, but almost overnight many of the best teachers from the doomed grammars quit, damaging the new regime from the outset.
The Tories lost control of the council in 1971, a year after Kathleen was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to education, and she became Lord Mayor of Manchester in 1975. In 1984 she was made a Freeman of the City of Manchester, an accolade she cherished above all her many others – including five honorary doctorates and a plethora of prestigious appointments.
An Honorary Fellow of Somerville, she succeeded Prince Philip, a long-time friend, as president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Application and toured 23 universities with her lecture. As a keen amateur astronomer – a pursuit she took up in 1990 at the age of 78 -and a friend of Sir Bernard Lovell and Sir Patrick Moore, she gave her name to the observatory at Lancaster University, where she was former Deputy Pro-Chancellor. Dame Kathleen also served in senior positions at Manchester and Salford Universities and Manchester Polytechnic, later Manchester Metropolitan University and she was invited to become president of the Manchester Statistical Society when it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1983.
Despite her deafness, music was a passion throughout her life. She never missed a Hallé concert for 20 years, attending during the 1930s and 1940s with her widowed father-in-law, the eminent orthopaedic surgeon whom she called Father Bob, watching the musicians closely and following the musical scores and phrasing printed out in the programmes. Her own huge contribution was being prime mover in the establishment of the Royal Northern College of Music.
Dame Kathleen outlived her husband, High Sheriff of Greater Manchester in 1978-9, who died in 1986, and, tragically, both their children. Florence died in 1972 aged just 26 and Charles in 1999. Save for her school and university days, she lived all her life in south Manchester, moving round the corner to Pine Road from Elm Road in 1952, continuing into her late 90s and celebrating her 100th birthday with friends at a party in her garden, her undiminished desire to continue solving mathematical problems.
A memorial service to celebrate her life will be held at Manchester Cathedral at a later date.