At least until the third quarter of the 20th century, the Professor in Scotland dominated his department to an extent that was unfamiliar in English universities. Therefore the character of the Professor mattered hugely. That for nearly 30 years Robert Rankin ruled Mathematics in Glasgow, as Philip Dee ruled Physics, R.A. Raphael ruled Chemistry and Guido Pontecorvo ruled Biochemistry, was a good fortune for gifted students. Heavyweights, they insisted on rigorous scholarship and led by example.
At my first meeting, Rankin was cryogenically formidable. I was a very young MP, and had what he had first thought was the effrontery to challenge the Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow University, Sir Charles Wilson, on behalf of a young student constituent from Broxburn, West Lothian, who had been found -- wrongly, as it turned out -- cheating in exams. As soon as the error became apparent, no man could have been more gracious. Rankin was a big man in every way.
He was the son and grandson of the manse. His grandfather, Robert Rankin, after whom he was called, was the Minister of Lamington, in Lanarkshire. His father, Professor Oliver Shaw Rankin, was the parish minister in Sorbie, Wigtownshire, between 1912 and 1937. He was no simple country priest. The author of The Origins of the Festival of Hanukkah (1930) and Israel's Wisdom Literature: its bearing on theology and the history of religion (1936), he became Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology in Edinburgh University in 1937 and died in 1954.
Rankin senior's meticulous scholarship was a mighty influence on his son, who went from Fettes to Clare College, Cambridge. Here, he was supervised by A.E. Ingham, Fellow of King's College and author of The Distribution of Prime Numbers (1932). Before he died in 1967 I sat next to Ingham at a college feast, and, when I told him about my encounter with Rankin, he replied simply, "Robert was the most serious of all my gifted pupils."
During the Second World War he was ordered to join the Ministry of Supply against his wish to serve in the forces against Hitler, and was sent to Fort Halstead, in Kent, to apply his mathematical knowledge to the development of rockets. He developed a theory to predict the motion of a rocket during the burning phase, given certain initial data. Alas, the Government did not give this field of activity any kind of priority. The achievement of Rankin and his team was dwarfed by the spectacular success of German scientists at Peenemunde, which resulted in the horrific deployment of V1 "doodle-bugs" and of the terrifying V2 rockets.
As soon as the war was over and his work was declassified Rankin prepared a long and detailed paper, published by the Royal Society of London in its Philosophical Transactions, entitled "The Mathematical Theory of the Motion of Rotated and Unrotated Rockets".
He became a University Lecturer in Mathematics and Fellow of Clare. Sir Brian Pippard, five years his junior and then a Fellow in Physics, later President of Clare Hall and Cavendish Professor, recalls:
He was a conscientious teacher and had a wide interest in mathematics. Those who took the trouble to ask him serious questions were rewarded with precise and very serious answers.
Rankin became Mason Professor of Mathematics in Birmingham in 1951. He is remembered for producing a paper prompted by Dorothy L. Sayers's crime novel about bell-ringing The Nine Tailors (1934). He used the theory of permutation groups to demonstrate that certain peals of bells were impossible, subject to the conventional restrictions of change ringing. It was a novel application of expertise in algebra.
In 1954 that shrewd judge of people, Sir Hector Hetherington, Principal at Glasgow, lured Rankin back to Scotland to the Chair of Mathematics on the retirement of Professor T.M. MacRobert. The transfer from Birmingham to Glasgow was made the more appealing by Rankin's passion for the Gaelic language and Gaelic music. As far back as 1948 he had published a paper on problems of number theory in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, and written in Scottish Gaelic. He gave his name as Rob Alasdair Mac Fhraing, but the editors, not recognising it as Robert Rankin's, solemnly sent him his own paper for an academic review.
His detailed knowledge of Gaelic grammar qualified him to be an external examiner at University College, Galway, where certain mathematical papers were taken in Irish Gaelic. He was elected Honorary President of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow in 1957.
In 1942 he married Mary Llewellyn. She was a close relative of the singer Kathleen Ferrier, remembered for many wonderful performances and in particular Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" sung with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the first Edinburgh International Festival. Rankin and his wife occupied the traditional home of the Professor of Mathematics at No 10 The Square, in Glasgow University, a centre of warm hospitality not only for mathematicians but for musicians from all over the world.
Since the death of his wife in 1996 Rankin suffered from ill-health. However, such was his spirit that in December 2000 he insisted, against medical advice, on coming to London to give a talk about one of his predecessors in the Glasgow Chair, Hugh Blackburn, friend of Lord Kelvin.
Tam Dalyell, 10 February 2001 © Independent Digital (UK) Ltd