Geoffrey Howson died on 1 November 2022, aged 91

Tony Gardiner writes:

The mathematical “house” is fortunate in having “many mansions”, inhabited by a remarkable variety of workers. By any account Geoffrey Howson – who died on 1 November 2022, aged 91 – was a significant player throughout much of the period 1950-2000. However, like so many other workers, he operated effectively, but quietly, so may not have been noticed. Nevertheless his life offers interesting insights into how UK society has changed since 1931 (when he was born as the seventh in a family of seven children), and into how UK mathematics and mathematics education worldwide have evolved since the 1950s.

Geoffrey belonged to the generation, who emerged in significant numbers (perhaps for the first time) in the 1940s. Their families had never been to secondary school – let alone university. Yet – thanks to structural changes and committed teachers – they somehow emerged in small numbers at age 18, ready to take on whatever challenges the post-war world might present.

Geoffrey always remained faithful to his roots (a solid Yorkshireman, from a deprived, but proud, mining community). Yet he came to excel in mathematics, in university politics, and in international mathematics education – as well as in the world of opera, Bauhaus design and embroidery, and medieval church architecture.

Geoffrey went to Castleford Grammar School (founded 1906), and was probably the first from that school to study mathematics. He went on to Max Newman’s department in Manchester, where his teachers included: Max, Walter Ledermann, J.W.S. Cassels, Bernhard Neumann, Graham Higman, Kurt Mahler, Arthur Stone, James Lighthill (MA President 1970), M.B. Glauert, Charles Illingworth, and Bernard Lovell. He was Graham Higman’s second PhD student (proving that the intersection of two finitely generated subgroups in a free group is finitely generated). He also attended Turing’s lectures on morphology – interrupted only by Turing’s death.

Invitations from Reinhold Baer (Illinois) and Saunders Maclane (Chicago) were put aside in order to complete National Service (when he taught RAF trainees about guided missiles). He then moved to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich in 1957 (where he taught the new generation of future naval commanders about similar things).

In 1962 he went to Southampton to manage the School Mathematics Project (SMP). This was the UK equivalent of “new math”, but much more humane and less abstract. At its height SMP materials were “used” (in some sense) in 60% or so of UK secondary schools. But SMP remained a Teachers’ Cooperative, with no government support. Geoffrey’s job was officially to edit and to manage the program of new textbooks. In practice, he had to coordinate the writing (planned and completed by a remarkable group of full-time teachers); the production of draft materials; the revision process; and to deal with the publishers and the exam boards (since no project could survive if there was not a corresponding tailored public examination at age 16 and 18).

Geoffrey became a representative spokesperson for “modern maths” developments in the UK, and so came to interact with those similarly placed in other countries – in both East and West – producing many reports, and editing collections published in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He published and edited a huge variety of books and papers – all written in a thoughtful style. His goal was to inform and enlighten, rather than to engage in “theoretical research”. He became a leader in Mathematics Education internationally, but was never really appreciated by the new breed of “Maths Education” researchers. His contributions were mostly pragmatic comparisons, surveys, and analyses, designed to inform and to allow improved judgements to be made. He was also very active in supporting teachers’ colleges and those working in polytechnics.

He helped to salvage ICMI/ICME after it came unstuck around 1980. And it is a mark of the man that he managed this (with Jean-Pierre Kahane) while remaining great friends with those who had been part of the previous regime. He was recognised in other countries but not much within the UK.

He was Head of Department and Dean 1990-92 and may have helped in building up parts of what is now a very strong mathematics department. He also Chaired the LMS/IMA/RSS committee that produced the report “Tackling the mathematics problem”: this was a rare instance of the three scholarly societies acting together on a matter of mutual concern, and then having a significant impact on subsequent policy-making.

They don’t make them like that any more.