Sir Alexander Oppenheim was the last surviving "colonial" vice-chancellor. He was a distinguished scholar, teacher and administrator, and will be warmly remembered not only for his scholarship and considerable legacy to higher education in South-east Asia and West Africa but also by his former students and junior colleagues to whom he always gave time and support. He was a brilliant, gracious but extremely modest man.
Born in 1903, "Oppie" grew up in Manchester and was an outstanding pupil at Manchester Grammar School. Held back by traditionalists on account of his youth, when allowed in 1921, he sat for and was awarded a Mathematics Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. Winning honour after honour - including the captaincy of the university chess team - both before and after his "first" in 1924, three years later he surprised his colleagues by abandoning a tutorship at Exeter College for the United States.
A Commonwealth Fellow at the Universities of Chicago - where the substance of his 1930 PhD (on "Minima of indefinite quaternary quadratic forms") was immediately published in the Annals of Mathematics - and Princeton, his work is still often cited. After only a year as a Lecturer at Edinburgh University, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Raffles College in Singapore.
Many were saddened that so brilliant and congenial a colleague should apparently divorce himself from "mainstream" research in number theory, particularly when world events swept him into the Singapore Reserve Army with the rank of lance-bombardier. In 1942, although his wife and young daughter escaped, he was captured by the Japanese.
Yet even the atrocious treatment accorded to prisoners of war failed to dim his spirits. Bitterness was foreign to his nature and he often warned that it is wrong to hold the Japanese nation collectively responsible for the actions of individuals, however brutal. In later years, watching television recreations of those times, he would sometimes shake his head and mutter, "impossible: we all had such dysentery . . ." but that was all he said.
He suffered considerably in the notorious Changi Camp but amazingly he and other captive scholars managed to establish a rudimentary "POW University". He was elected Dean by his fellow prisoners. Although they were desperately short of paper for assignments, Oppenheim and his colleagues succeeded in persuading an untypically sensitive Japanese officer, Lieutenant Okazaki, to allow the collection of books from Raffles College as a nucleus for a library. These efforts lent purpose to many in despair, even after the venture was disrupted by transfers, including Oppie whose health meantime deteriorated further, to construction camps along the Siam (Thailand)- Burma Railway. Thoughts of his family, he once recalled, kept him alive.
After the collapse of the Japanese empire, he returned to Raffles College, becoming deputy then acting principal, and was active in the planning of a brave new venture - the University of Malaya. There, he was appointed Dean of Arts and, in 1955, acting Vice- Chancellor. Always sensitive about ill-informed criticism of institutions of higher learning in the developing world, he was infuriated when a prominent professor pompously opined that it was only the granting of full university status that allowed research of any significance. He decided to draw the attention of Oxford University to some of the mathematical work he had completed whilst a department head at Raffles College. He not only made his point but was promptly awarded a DSc.
In 1957, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya just before the establishment of the new Kuala Lumpur campus. Although preoccupied by the many administrative problems of a new university, he continued to publish learned papers and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1962 the distinguished Malayan title "Dato" - "Panglima Mangku Negara" - was conferred on him.
On returning to England he became a visiting professor at Reading University until 1968 when Professor Alex Kwapong, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana invited him to the spacious and beautiful campus at Legon. His impact on the study of mathematics and statistics in Accra - to say nothing of the polished politics of an academic board, whose expatriate members had included such diverse names as Thomas Hodgkin, Connor Cruise O'Brien, Alan Nun May and Shirley Williams - is acknowledged to this day. Ghanaians who did not feel at all culturally happy calling so distinguished an elder "Oppie", respectfully but affectionately dubbed him "Professor-Sir". A witty and popular conversationalist, he was popular in all the common rooms and renowned also for his ability to grow fine roses.
Before he left to become Deputy Rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, Alex Kwapong had also recruited Professor John Harris, another former vice-chancellor (of the leading Nigerian University at Ibadan) to Legon. Meantime, the government of Nigeria embarked on a programme of university expansion. As a first step, the existing scientific and medical university faculties in the historic city of Benin were to be added to and an extensive building programme undertaken to enhance full university status. Harris was recalled to Nigeria to be acting Vice-Chancellor. He in turn invited Oppenheim to head the department of mathematics. The two were often to be observed striding along in the humid early tropical mornings, deep in conversation whilst swinging heavy walking sticks to discourage the curiosity of the local canine population.
As always, Alexander Oppenheim remained fiercely loyal to his students and younger members of the faculties, but as local confidence developed, his wise opinions, for instance not to rush too soon into the effervescent early computer market, were not always heeded - at some cost to the young university. He was much liked by Nigerians and his wide experience, impeccable manners, and cool advice were generally widely appreciated. Even so, he began to weary of certain distinctly if not uniquely Nigerian administrative practices and in 1977 politely declined to renew his contract. Oppie also knew he was slowing down and he chose to retire finally and happily in Henley-on-Thames. To the end he read widely and remained capable of the most perceptive, pithy and amusing comment on the problems both of old age and of the wider world
Monday, 15 December 1997 © Independent Digital (UK) Ltd