Edward Burns Ross


Born: 28 September 1881 in Maud, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Died: 11 January 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland


Edward Ross's father was William Ross (born in Helmsdall, Sutherland about 1832) who was a supervisor with the Inland Revenue. His mother was Ann Ross (born in Dundee about 1841) who was a school teacher. Edward had two older sisters, Marjory (born about 1870) and Hannah (born about 1875).

Edward Ross was six years old when his father died and at this time his mother moved from Maud, Aberdeenshire, to Edinburgh where he continued his schooling. Educated at George Watson's School in Edinburgh, Ross was dux of the school in 1898, matriculating at the University of Edinburgh in October of that year. His undergraduate career was outstanding: he won the Mitchell and Shortt Bursary, the Bruce of Grangehill and Falkland Bursary, and the Vans Dunlop Scholarship in Natural Philosophy. In 1902 he graduated M.A., with First Class Honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.

After graduating Ross went to Cambridge, beginning his studies in October 1902. He was Seventh Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos of 1904 and in the same year was awarded a Ferguson Scholarship. This is reported in The Scotsman of 5 October 1904:-

The Ferguson Scholarships

The examinations for these scholarships were conducted in the Trustees' Chambers, Glasgow, on 20, 21, 22 September 1904 by Andrew Munro, M.A., Queen's College, Cambridge in mathematics. The mathematics scholarship was divided between Edward Burns Ross, M.A., Edinburgh University, and Peter Fraser, M.A., Aberdeen University.

After a First Class performance in Part II of the Mathematical Tripos in 1906, Ross was appointed as Assistant to Karl Pearson at University College, London in October 1906. In the following year he accepted the post of Professor of Mathematics at the Christian College, Madras (now Chennai), India.

Ross had studied with G H Hardy in Cambridge, so this gives an interesting link between Hardy and Madras mathematicians. One of Ross's best students at Madras was S R Rangathan who went on to become a founder of library science. [2]

Ranganathan joined the junior intermediate class at the Madras Christian College in March 1909. Even in those days, there were paucity of college seats. Ranganathan was picked up for his excellent marks in all the subjects and the principal. Prof. Skinner spotted him in a crowd of students and admitted him into the course. Ranganathan passed B.A. with a first class in March/April 1913. In June, same year, he joined the M.A. class in Mathematics with Professor Edward B. Ross as his teacher. Being a favourite student of Prof. Ross, Ranganathan had an excellent Guru-Shishya relationship. More than class room discussions, corridor and staircase discussions were taken recourse to. Ranganathan ingrained this trait into his own discipline later on. Ranganathan did his Master's degree in 1916 and he wanted to be a teacher in Mathematics. He also took a course in teaching technique and gained L T degree from a teachers' college. During his college days, Ranganathan cultivated intimacy with his teachers, Professors Moffat and J.P. Manickam of Physics, Prof. Sabhesan of Botany, Prof. Chinnathambi Pillai and L.N. Subramanyam of Mathematics. But Prof. Ross remained his favourite Guru throughout his life.
Ranganathan dedicated his book The five laws of library science to Ross:
E B Ross, to whom the author owes so much more, for a casual remark of his which convinced the author of the need for a book of this sort which seeks to reduce and relate all the principles and practice of library work to a few fundamental laws
In 1925 Ranganathan endowed a mathematicial fellowship at Madras Christian College in honour of Ross. According to [3]:
Ross trained Ranganathan in the art of thinking and made him adept in perceiving those things around which an ordinary mind ordinarily overlooks. He told Ranganathan of the intrinsic interconnection of one entity with another to the extent that "Thou cannot stir a flower without troubling of a star". In our infinite world, stars and flowers, fire and rain, Nature and God, to take a few examples at random, are all linked together in a Great Chain of Being.
In 1921, while back in Scotland on leave, Ross cooperated with B Bevan-Baker in an important paper On the Vibrations of a Particle about a Position of Equilibrium in which they explained the long-noted phenomenon of the great difference between the orbit of Jupiter and that of Saturn. See [1].

Ross continued working in Madras until 1932 when he was forced to retire due to ill health. He then returned to Edinburgh, living at 41 Liberton Brae, where he was looked after by his sisters for the final 15 years of his life during which time his health continued to deteriorate.

Ross joined the Edinburgh Mathematical Society in 1903 and remained a member throughout his career in India, and his retirement to Edinburgh. While still in Edinburgh he read his paper The contact of a member of a family of curves with the envelope to the Society at its meeting on Friday 13 January 1905. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 7 March 1921, his proposers being Sir Edmund T Whittaker, Cargill Gilston Knott, Ellice Martin Horsburgh, David Gibb.

An obituary, written by Edmund Whittaker, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1948/1949, page 43.
We give a version of this obituary at THIS LINK.

His death was reported in The Scotsman:-

Death of Former Madras Professor

The death has occurred at his home, 41 Liberton Brae, Edinburgh of Professor Edward Burns Ross, who in 1933 retired from the post of Professor of Mathematics in Madras Christian College. Educated at Edinburgh University, where he graduated M.A., and subsequently at Cambridge, he was appointed to Madras College in 1906. A zealous teacher, he exerted a powerful religious influence in the College, was a generous friend of the students, and gave much time and thought to the extension of the College library. In 1915 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Professor Ross was 65 years of age.

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

November 2007
MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Ross.html]