Sheila Edmonds

Senior Cambridge mathematician who taught and inspired generations of women

Sheila Edmonds, mathematician, was born on April 1, 1916. She died on September 2, 2002, aged 86.

Sheila Edmonds was one of the last of the old-style Cambridge dons who devoted their lives to teaching and to their colleges. The only child of a teacher and a lecturer, she went up to Newnham in 1935 to read mathematics and, except for a year as a research student at Westfield College and a year in Paris, lived in college rooms for the next 47 years. She had an excellent undergraduate career, ending up a "wrangler", as students placed in the first class in the maths Tripos are known, though this did not result in a Cambridge BA, because women were ineligible until 1947.

The following year, she was awarded a distinction in the notoriously demanding Part III of the Tripos. She acknowledged that a key to her success was the thorough mathematical training she received from her director of studies, Margaret Grimshaw, who was 11 years her senior and another of the old-style dons.

After Part III, Edmonds embarked on research under the supervision of G.H. Hardy, perhaps the finest English mathematician of his generation. Her doctoral thesis, finished in 1944, was modestly entitled Some Multiplication Problems, but it set the agenda for the series of papers she produced over the next ten years.

It was not long before pressure of college teaching and administration squeezed the time she had available for mathematical research. In those days it was expected that supervisors in maths would teach the whole range of pure and applied mathematics; this Edmonds did with aplomb, while conveying in a characteristically understated manner a deep enthusiasm for her particular subject areas. Her patience, thoroughness and encouragement set a generation of women on the path to careers in maths and related subjects.

It was the custom until quite recently for each lecture course in mathematics to be given by two different lecturers, at the same time but in different lecture theatres. Students often suspected that one lecturer was better than the other, which caused a gradual drift over the term until one lecture theatre was packed and only a handful of students left in the other.

In the 1950s students were surprised to find that the difficult third-year course on mathematical analysis was given by two lecturers, each of whom was wonderfully lucid and inspiring: Miss Grimshaw and Miss Edmonds. No drift was observed. That this important part of the course should be taught by two female lecturers simultaneously was particularly surprising given that only a handful of women lectured in the maths faculty in the course of the entire century.

In 1960 Edmonds became Vice-Principal of Newnham College, a position of considerable responsibility which she held until her retirement in 1981. A mainstay of the college structure as well as of its teaching, she also found time to serve, among other organisations, the Mathematical Association and the Local Examinations Syndicate, and on the governing bodies of various schools including Roedean. She was a member of the University Faculty Board of Mathematics for 16 years, and its chairman in 1975 and 1976.

Sheila Edmonds was fundamentally a shy person, but her reticent style concealed a great deal of warmth and real concern for her students, colleagues and friends. On formal occasions, she cut an impressive figure, but without any hint of pomposity. After her retirement she was content to live quietly with her newly acquired dog until that was made impossible by the onset of Alzheimer's disease. She had no close relatives.

Copyright The Times, 2002

Professor John McCutcheon writes:
It is no exaggeration to say that the lectures of Sheila Edmonds (obituary, October 10) were "wonderfully lucid and inspiring". I remember her as one of the very best teachers of my undergraduate career. She came across as a most sympathetic lecturer, clearly anxious to assist students in every way.

The kind and patient manner in which Miss Edmonds dealt with a query from me, at the end of a lecture in which I had failed to understand fully a somewhat abstruse point in mathematical analysis, is something I have never forgotten and an example to us all. I was president of the Adams Society, the St John's College student mathematical society, for the year 1961-62, and recall that when we were planning our programme, Miss Edmonds was high on the committee's list of potential speakers.

Copyright The Times, 2002