Harry Raymond Pitt


Born: 3 June 1914 in Greets Green, West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England
Died: 8 October 2005 in Derby, England


Harry Pitt was often known as H R Pitt. His father, also named Harry Pitt, was a motorcar engineer who had no formal education beyond the age of thirteen. Harry Pitt Senior married Florence Harriet Draper and they had two children; Harry and Sybil (born 1921). Harry, the subject of this biography, entered Greets Green Primary School when he was five years old. Two years later, in 1921, his family moved to Wall Heath (now in West Midlands) and he began attending the Church of England School there. His secondary education began in 1924, when he was ten years old, when he won a scholarship to attend King Edward's School, Stourbridge. He spent eight years at this school and described his time there in a personal statement (see for example [1]):-

King Edward's had a large sixth form and, particularly in the early thirties, a very high academic standard. Teaching in Science and Mathematics was excellent and I do not regret the fact that I spent my last four years at school reading little else. My response to teaching in humane studies was less satisfactory and my early introduction to History, Literature and Languages left me with a positive distaste for these subjects which lasted well into my undergraduate years.

During these years, in 1928, his family moved from Wall Heath to Kingswinford. In his final year at King Edward's School, Pitt won a scholarship to read mathematics at Peterhouse, Cambridge. Without this financial assistance his parents would have not been able to support him through university. He matriculated at Cambridge in 1932 and there studied the Mathematical Tripos. He was tutored by J C Burkill and attended courses by world-leading mathematicians such as: functions of a complex variable from A E Ingham, almost periodic functions from A S Besicovitch, the theory of functions from J E Littlewood, and divergent series from G H Hardy. He was ranked first class in Part I and in Part II, then obtained a distinction in Part III in 1935. Following the award of his degree he remained at Cambridge as a research student supervised by G H Hardy. He held a Bye-Fellowship at Peterhouse from 1936 to 1939, but spent session 1937-38 at Harvard University where he was a Chaote Memorial Fellow.

Pitt undertook research on Tauberian Theorems, an area that had been greatly developed by Norbert Wiener in the early 1930s. It was therefore particularly beneficial for him to spend a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during which time he was able to collaborate with David Widder at Harvard and with Norbert Wiener at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pitt was awarded a doctorate by the University of Cambridge in 1938 for his thesis General Tauberian Theorems. Few research students can have had a more productive beginning to their careers for, after publishing A note on bilinear forms in 1936, and Theorems on Fourier series and powers series in 1937, he then published no fewer than eight papers in 1938. One of these 1938 papers, On absolutely convergent Fourier-Stieltjes transforms, was written jointly with Norbert Wiener.

In 1939 Pitt was appointed as an assistant lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He married Catherine Jacoby on 5 April 1940; they had four sons Mathew (born 1945), John (born 1947), Daniel (born 1954) and Julian (born 1958). Of course Pitt's time in Aberdeen coincided with the first years of World War II and, in 1942, he began to use his mathematical skills as part of the war effort. Michael Sewell writes [3]:-

With his developing analytical skills, Pitt moved to London in 1942 to work at the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production for three years. Within R.A.F. Coastal Command he used probability theory, and the newly developing operational research, to devise methods for attacking German U-boats. 'The Times' remarks that Pitt refused a commission because he felt that such status would limit his freedom to influence senior officers.

The war ended in 1945 and Pitt finished his war work, being appointed as Professor of Mathematics at Queen's University Belfast. It was a remarkable leap from assistant lecturer to professor in one step, but by 1945 he had 20 papers in print and his three years experience undertaking war service was exceptionally positive. After five years in Belfast, Pitt moved to Nottingham in 1950 when appointed as Professor of Pure Mathematics at the university there. His appointment was to fill the chair left vacant by the retiral of Henry Piaggio who had taught at Nottingham for 42 years. Piaggio had filled the first chair of Mathematics at Nottingham, there only being a chair of Physics and Mathematics before that. Then Pitt, the second holder of the Mathematics chair, persuaded the university to found a chair of Applied Mathematics. The first Professor of Applied Mathematics was Rodney Hill, appointed in 1953. Michael Sewell writes in [3] of his undergraduate days at Nottingham:-

... when I joined the Mathematics Department at Nottingham in 1954 as an undergraduate, all the factors had been put in place which provided an excellent mathematical education. With other arrangements which Pitt made, the atmosphere felt as if, provided one worked conscientiously, good values were handed out on a plate. Experienced staff were qualified to teach the major areas of analysis, algebra, geometry, statistics, and the mechanics of rigid and deformable bodies, fluids and electromagnetism. The pleasure in the Department was real when Harry Pitt was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society in 1957, and Rodney Hill likewise in 1961. ... Harry Pitt ... regarded it as his duty to give tailored courses himself at [Pass] level, and not merely to concentrate on the Honours stream. The result was, over the years, a body of graduates who were grateful for the kindness and attention which he devoted to them.

Pitt became involved in university administration being first a member of the Council, then Vice-dean followed by Dean of the Faculty of Science and, finally, Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Naturally this change of emphasis meant that he had less time for mathematical research and, during fourteen years at Nottingham from 1950 to 1964 he published only three papers. However he took the opportunity to write two classic texts publishing Tauberian theorems in 1958 and Integration, measure and probability in 1963. S Ikehara begins his review of the first of these as follows:-

This is the first book exclusively devoted to the study of Tauberian theorems, which have been associated with the names of Hardy, Littlewood, and Wiener among others. The author has succeeded in giving a brief introduction to some of the more important Tauberian theorems, including mercerian theorems as limiting cases, and the methods which have been developed to prove them.

N Dinculeanu reviewed the second of these texts, beginning his review as follows:-

As the author states in the preface, the purpose of this book is to provide an introduction to the modern theory of probability and the fundamental ideas and techniques on which it is based, namely, those of measure and integration. Consequently, the book is divided into two distinct parts. The first part is devoted to the theory of integration in a sufficiently general context to make it applicable in other branches of analysis. The second part deals with more specialised topics, such as convergence theorems and random sequences and functions. All this material is excellently exposed within only 106 pages.

The book Integration, measure and probability appeared after he had spent the year 1962-63 as a visiting professor at Yale University. The change in direction for Pitt's career into administration became, in a sense, complete in 1964 when he was appointed as Vice-Chancellor of Reading University. He remained in this post until he retired in 1978. The authors of [1] write that:-

He was calm and thoughtful as a Vice-Chancellor and as a man. ... His colleagues recall a kind man who led by consensus.

The author of [2] writes:-

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.

After he retired as Vice-Chancellor, Pitt served in a number of ways such as being a member of the Royal Society Education Committee from 1980 to 1985 and he was president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications in 1984-85. His presidential address to the Institute was The place of mathematics. Also in 1985 he published the third of his texts, namely Measure and integration for use. The cover of the book contains the following description of its contents:-

Although of unquestioned power and practical utility, the Lebesgue Theory of measure and integration tends to be avoided by mathematicians, due to the difficulty of obtaining detailed proofs of a few crucial theorems. In this concise and easy-to-read introduction, the author demonstrates that the day-to-day skills gleaned from Lebesgue Theory far outweigh the effort needed to master it. This compact account develops the theory as it applies to abstract spaces, describes its importance to differential and integral calculus, and shows how the theory can be applied to geometry, harmonic analysis, and probability. Postgraduates in mathematics and science who need integration and measure theory as a working tool, as well as statisticians and other scientists, will find this practical work invaluable.

Miguel A Jiménez Pozo writes in a review:-

As the title implies, this book deals with measure and integration. It gives a compact account of the essential theory and some of its applications. For reasons of brevity, the author derives the concepts of measure and measurability from that of the integral. This approach is far from the original development of the theory and consequently, perhaps, less pedagogical for beginners. On the other hand, the details of many proofs are left to the reader in accordance with the author's objectives. The exposition, however, is rigorous, clear and precise and the three chapters in the first part of the book cover the main results of measure and integration, such as the theorems of Lebesgue, Fubini and Radon-Nikodym. The second part also has three chapters: Each one of them considers an area of application: geometry, harmonic analysis and probability.

Pitt received many honours in addition to election to a fellowship of the Royal Society which we mentioned above. He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Aberdeen (1970), Nottingham (1970), Reading (1978), and Belfast (1980). He was knighted in 1978 for his contributions as Vice-Chancellor of Reading University.

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

December 2008


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Pitt.html]