John Steggall's father was J W B Steggall M.R.C.S., a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. John was educated in London and attended the City of London School. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1874 and there he studied the Mathematical Tripos. He graduated in 1878 as second Wrangler (meaning that he was ranked second in the list of those obtaining First Class degrees). The Senior Wrangler in that year was Ernest Hobson but in the competition for the Smiths Prize it was Steggall who came out as the top candidate ahead of Hobson.
For someone with this high level of attainment at Cambridge the natural next step would have been to have applied for a fellowship. Hobson won a fellowship but these were only open to those who did not marry and Steggall was about to marry Isabella Katherine Fraser of Rowmore House, Gareloch, near Helensburgh. They married in 1878. In 1890 The College, a Cambridge student magazine, contained the comment:-
[Steggall] did not proceed to the examination for the fellowship, having gone in for a fellowship of a more lasting kind. It is to be regretted for his sake that the regulations allowing married men to hold fellowships did not come into force until after his time.
John and Isabella had three children, one son and two daughters. The son was killed in action in World War I.
After graduating Steggall became an Assistant Master at Clifton College, Bristol. He held this position during 1878-1879 and then from 1880 he was Fielden lecturer at Owens College, Manchester (this later became the University of Manchester).
In 1881 University College, Dundee, was set up with Mary Ann Baxter as its principal benefactor. She required it to be for:-
... promoting the education of persons of both sexes and the study of Science, Literature and the Fine Arts.
In many ways it was modelled on Owens College, Manchester and advice had been sought from Owens College. Steggall applied to become the first Principal of University College, Dundee. He failed to secure this position, but instead was offered the chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. He accepted, and went to Dundee in 1883 to become the first professor of mathematics at the new College. In 1895 University College decided that a separate department of physics was required and J P Keunen was appointed. Steggall then became Professor of Pure and Applied Mathematics, a title that he held until he chose to retire in 1933 having been a professor for 50 years. Two years after he became Professor of Pure and Applied Mathematics, University College Dundee became part of the University of St Andrews and so from 1897 on Steggall became an employee of the University of St Andrews.
It was while he was at Owens College, Manchester, that Steggall published London University Pure Mathematics Questions and Solutions which gave the University of London examination questions from 1877 to 1881 together with Steggall's solutions. It was a useful work, for when he went to University College, Dundee, for some years his students took the University of London external examinations since University College had no power to award degrees. In the Preface to the book he explained his reasons for writing it:-
The main object of this book is to afford help to those students who have to read mathematics for the BA and BSc degrees of the University of London without the aid of a private tutor.
Steggall had little time for research when he arrived in Dundee. He taught his first class at 8 a.m. every morning Monday to Saturday (inclusive). On many days he taught his final lecture from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. He had to give 16 hours of lectures per week, two tutorials, and (with the help of one laboratory assistant) had to supervise the laboratory which was open 45 hours per week. Of course on top of all this teaching he was responsible for setting and marking examinations, and for procuring equipment for the laboratory. It was due to the very heavy workload that eventually physics was split off to become a separate subject in 1895. William Peddie said of him:-
The generation of British mathematics to which Steggall belonged delighted in proposing and working out problems whose solutions might require the aid of any branch of pure or applied mathematics.
He was an enthusiastic member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society which, by coincidence, was founded in the year that Steggall arrived in Scotland to take up his professorship in Dundee. Comments by Muir in his presidential address to the Society in 1884 suggest that he resented the Englishman Steggall being appointed to a Scottish professorship but Steggall fitted in well with the work of the new Society and was elected its tenth president in 1891-92. He was also president in 1924 and 1929. Turnbull was the only other who was President three times.
Steggall ordered mathematical models from a German company in the early 1900s to use in his teaching. His models are still owned by the University of Dundee. They include models of: a surface of rotation of the tractrix; a surface of rotation of Steiner's Roman surface, an ellipsoid; a helicoid; a hyperbolic paraboloid; a catenoid; a Riemann surface with branch point of order two; a triply-connected Riemann surface; a hyperbolic paraboloid; a torus; and a hyperboloid of revolution with ellipsoid cross-section.
Although his teaching load was heavy, he did find time to write a few research papers. His research interests were in the theory of numbers and in kinematical geometry, particularly the geometry of the triangle. He also published articles on teaching mathematics such as the following examples which all appeared in the Mathematical Gazette: On practical mathematics in schools (1914); Voting in theory and practice (1929); and The neglect of arithmetic in schools (1935). He gave lectures such as Teaching of Mathematics and Physics in 1898 in Glasgow; Education and Machinery in 1905 to the Ruskin Society; A Pioneer in Hydraulics: Mark Beaufoy in 1908 to the Dundee Society of Engineers; and Lectures on Astronomy.
Steggall was an important influence on university life:-
He remained an exceptional examiner who maintained an alertness and freshness of outlook to the end. He was a central figure at the college in his time, participating in all aspects of University life. The college magazine was in great praise of his attendance at Student Society meetings and he was a popular Honorary President of the Society for some years. His position and sense of duty made him an important figure to the students.
Hilary Mason writes :-
Steggall in many ways is an outstanding example of the men of his time who believed passionately in reform and who sought to improve the lives of the poor by educational reform and by provision of better housing and medical care. Steggall was active in many areas: Dundee Social Union, Dundee School Board, and the Episcopal Church. He along with many others deserves to be remembered for his contribution to mathematics, not principally through any contribution of original work but through educational reform. Men like him made it possible for many of us to study when in the past universities would have been closed to us. They also made mathematics easier and more enjoyable to study.
Steggall's many other interests included photography, woodwork and cycling. His enthusiasm as a cyclist can be realised by the fact that at the age of 65 he rode his bicycle 500 miles to a British Association meeting in Cardiff. He was a member of the Scottish Arts Club and the Scottish Mountaineering Club.
His collection of more than 2000 photographs can be seen at the University of St Andrews.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson