Vernon Charles Morton

Born: 26 June 1896 in Sheffield, England
Died: March 1978 in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England

Vernon Morton was the son of Charles Morton and Florence Cadman [7]:-
He always said that both his mother and his maternal grandmother could beat him at mental arithmetic.
Vernon attended the King Edward VII School in Sheffield. This school, which only took day pupils, was founded in 1905 when Wesley College and Sheffield Royal Grammar School merged. When Morton attended, the school included both a junior and a secondary school. However, the junior school no longer exists. A fellow pupil at King Edward VII School was Edward Titchmarsh who was three years younger than Morton. The headmaster during Morton's time at the school was James Harvey Hichens (1859-1938), who had an Oxford degree in chemistry, and he had done a remarkable job in raising the standards of the school with many pupils being successful in the Oxford and Cambridge Scholarship Examinations. In part the pupils' success was achieved by expecting them to do exceptionally large amounts of homework.

Morton followed the King Edward VII School tradition and sat the Oxford Scholarship Examinations winning an open scholarship to Merton College in 1915. Now, of course, World War I was already in progress at this time and, in 1916, he joined the Gloucestershire Regiment, nicknamed "The Glorious Glosters", of the British Army. He was sent to the front-line trenches near Armentières where he suffered a mustard gas attack. He was badly affected by the gas and was transferred to the Royal Engineers Signal Service which provided communications throughout the war. However, Morton never fully recovered from the gas attack and suffered the consequences for the rest of his life. After the end of World War I, Morton returned to his studies at Merton College, Oxford, in 1919.

In 1920 Morton won a Junior Mathematical Scholarship and when he graduated in 1921 he won a Senior Mathematical Scholarship. During 1921-22 he continued to study at Oxford where his tutor at Merton College was Arthur Lee Dixon who held a fellowship there. Dixon was particularly interested in applications of algebra to geometry and Morton was inspired by him to undertake research in this area. While at Oxford, Morton advised his fellow student Mary Cartwright. Cartwright had failed to get a first class and was seriously considering giving up mathematics altogether and returning to her first love of history. It was a painful decision, over which she agonised for some time, but Morton gave her very sensible advice. He told her to read Whittaker and Watson's 'Modern analysis' and to attend G H Hardy's evening sessions. This advice set Cartwright on the path to a stunning career in mathematics.

After leaving Oxford, Morton was appointed as a lecturer at Brighton Technical College. (This College was later named Brighton College of Technology and now is known as City College Brighton & Hove.) Morton taught there for a year which, he later said, gave him very valuable teaching experience. In 1923 he was appointed as a lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The Department in Aberystwyth had suffered a blow when William Henry Young had resigned at the end of session 1922-23. W H Young had been in post as Head of Pure Mathematics since 1919 but when he resigned all his assistants also left at the end of session 1922-23. George Adolphus Schott, Professor of Applied Mathematics, acted as head of Pure Mathematics after W H Young left and wrote in his report for 1923-24 [1]:-

Owing to the resignation of Professor W H Young, and the departure for various reasons of all his assistants at the end of session 1922-23, a very difficult situation arose in the Department of Pure Mathematics. This was rendered still worse by a reduction in the number of the staff, necessitated by the prevailing financial stringency, coupled with an increase of more than one-third in the number of students in the department, due to an unexpectedly large influx of mathematical students of the First Year. Under these conditions it became impossible to continue the Honours courses on the very ambitious scale projected by Professor Young, which was far beyond anything attempted in any other modern English University. ... The reorganisation of the higher courses, and especially the establishment of a very desirable combined Honours course in Pure and Applied Mathematics, was carried out, thanks to the invaluable assistance afforded by Messrs V C Morton and W J Webber ... Great credit is due to these gentlemen for their efforts during a very critical period in the history of the department ...
In 1925 Morton married Olive Norris, the daughter of George and Olive Norris of Oxford. She is described by Dorothy Meyler in [7] as "witty and beautiful". Vernon and Olive Morton lived at Eryl Mor, Brynymor Road, Aberystwyth and they had one son, David Charles Morton. Morton was promoted to Independent Lecturer and Head of the Pure Mathematics Department in 1926 and to Professor in 1933.

See THIS LINK for the annual reports that Morton wrote as head of Pure Mathematics at Aberystwyth. From these reports you can follow the progress of the Department of Pure Mathematics under Morton's leadership over a period of 25 years.

Dorothy Meyler writes in [7]

A gifted teacher and a stimulating lecturer, clear, cogent and logical, the elegance of Morton's presentation and his enthusiasm inspired his students with his own love of mathematics and aroused their appreciation of its beauty. His influence on the teaching of mathematics in the schools and colleges of Wales was profound and is still felt ... and Professor T V Davies, Principal C W L Bevan and former Vice-Chancellor E J Richards bear witness to the effectiveness of his teaching in training students for wider spheres. Morton's services in many capacities were frequently sought and highly valued by the University of Wales and by the College. He was an outstanding Dean of the Faculty of Arts and of the Faculty of Science (on two occasions). His most notable service to the College was as Vice-Principal and particularly as Acting Principal in 1957-58 at a time when his wisdom and charity were of inestimable value. Wise in counsel and disinterested in judgment, his integrity and magnanimity, kindness and humour will long be remembered with gratitude by his colleagues and students.
We refer the reader to [7] for details of the seven mathematics papers that Morton published.

When he reached the age of 65, Morton retired from his chair at Aberystwyth in 1961. However, this was not the end of his career for he was appointed Head of the Mathematics Department at St David's College, Lampeter, where he held this position from 1961 to 1966. We note that William Barry Pennington (1923- 1968) was appointed to fill Morton's chair at Aberystwyth when he retired in 1961.

Aberystwyth University now awards the V C Morton Prize for outstanding performance by any Mathematics undergraduate.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

April 2015
MacTutor History of Mathematics