Sir Harry Pitt

Pure mathematician who served for 15 years as Vice-Chancellor of Reading University

SIR HARRY PITT was a pure mathematician with particular expertise in probability theory and integration.

Harry Raymond Pitt was born in West Bromwich in 1914, the son of Harry and Harriet Pitt. His father was an engineer and eventually became an inspector at the Austin Motor Company. Between 1921 and 1928 the family lived at Wall Heath, now in West Midlands, and then moved to Kingswinford.

Pitt was a clever, hard-working boy. He won a scholarship to King Edward IV School at Stourbridge, West Midlands, and then won another that made it possible for him to take up a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge -- he needed to win scholarships because his parents could not afford to support him, particularly at university.

From 1936 to 1939 he held a Fellowship at Peterhouse, during which period he spent about a year at Harvard as a Choate Memorial Fellow. He was awarded a PhD by Cambridge University in 1938 for research on Tauberian Theorems, giving him a long-term interest in probability theory. In 1939 he went to Aberdeen University as a lecturer in mathematics.

In 1942 Pitt went to work in London at the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production, as they were then called.

He worked in Operational Research within RAF Coastal Command, applying probability theory to the development of tactics and strategies for attacking German U-boats. He refused a commission because he felt that it would limit his freedom to influence senior officers.

Operational Research began in the UK in the late 1930s, shortly before the outbreak of the war. Small teams of scientists were established to study the strategic and tactical problems involved in military operations. The early Operational Research workers came from a number of different disciplines; a typical group consisted of a mathematician, a physicist, two physiologists, and two mathematical physicists.

The aim was to find, by using quantitative techniques, the most effective way of employing the limited military resources available at the time.

After the war the civilian applications of Operational Research expanded rapidly, mainly as a consequence of the increasing availability and power of computers.

In 1945 Harry Pitt was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Queen's University Belfast. In 1950 he moved to the University of Nottingham as Professor of Pure Mathematics. In 1962-63 he once more crossed the Atlantic to serve as a visiting professor at Yale University. In 1964 he was appointed deputy vice-chancellor of Reading University, in which post he remained until 1979.

Pitt was probably the only mathematician so far to become the vice-chancellor of an English university. The Harry Pitt building at Reading University, housing several departments including Applied Statistics and Environmental Systems Science, was built in his honour.

Pitt was at Reading University during the student rebellion of 1968. In one well-publicised incident, he and the registrar were taken hostage by students and locked in a building on the campus. But he had anticipated this possibility and was able to escape using a spare set of keys.

Pitt wrote a number of mathematical papers in scientific journals and three mathematics textbooks -- Tauberian Theorems (1957), Measure, Integration and Probability (1963), and Measure and Integration for Use (1986).

Between 1975 and 1978 Pitt served as chairman of the Universities Central Council on Admissions, and between 1984 and 1985 he was president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the association of practising mathematicians.

Pitt's friends and acquaintances described him as a man of great modesty and integrity, capable of considerable clarity of thought. Being both always willing to be helpful to others, and a meticulous and excellent administrator, he was able to generate a great deal of good will.

Pitt was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Aberdeen (1970), Nottingham (1970), Reading (1978) and Belfast (1981). He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957 and was knighted in 1978.

His wife predeceased him. Four sons survive him.

Sir Harry Pitt, FRS, mathematician, Vice-Chancellor, Reading University, 1964-79, was born on June 3, 1914. He died on October 8, 2005, aged 91.


October 19, 2005 Times Newspapers Limited