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Peter M. Neumann OBE, 1940-2020

6 January 2021

The College community was extremely sad to hear news of the death of Peter M. Neumann OBE, mathematician and Emeritus Fellow of The Queen’s College, on 18 December, at the age of 79.

Peter had a very long association with the College, which he joined as an undergraduate to study mathematics in 1959. He was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship in Pure Mathematics at Queen’s in 1964 and became a Tutorial Fellow in 1966 and Lecturer in the University in 1967. Upon his retirement in September 2008, he was elected to an Emeritus Fellowship.

He taught all branches of pure mathematics to undergraduates at Queen’s and described himself as lecturing for the University ‘to undergraduates and graduate students on anything of interest to myself and, I hope, to them.’ Thirty-eight students completed doctorates under his supervision.

Peter gave great service to the College and held the positions of Dean of Degrees (1968-1973), Tutor for Admissions (1980-1986), Senior Tutor (1990-1995 and 2004-2008) and Secretary to the Queen’s Association (2000-2008), as well as serving as a University Proctor (1987-1988). He always remained deeply committed to the College and its life, and he was much loved by Fellows, staff and students.

‘Selflessness and generosity absolutely encapsulated Peter’s whole relationship to the College, to the University, to Mathematics, and to people in general,’ reflected Angus Bowie (Emeritus Fellow). ‘He had an utter and humbling dedication to people’s well-being, without a thought for the cost to himself. As Senior Fellow, as well as Senior Tutor, he had to bear a heavy load of hospitality in College, and how well he always did it. In the evenings when he presided Peter never failed to display a deep pleasure in entertaining our guests.’

‘Peter was a defining influence on the character of the College – setting very high standards by example in engagement with students and his colleagues,’ added Paul Madden (Fellow 1984-2004 and Provost 2008-2019). ‘As tutors, we aspired to emulate the detailed attention and inspiration given to the maths students. He took on the major College Officerships and performed them brilliantly, and with apparent enthusiasm. In the Common Room, he knitted together the sense of community and shared purpose amongst the senior members by a constant, welcoming presence combined with a strong sense of intellectual pursuit. Sitting on external committees, I came to realise how much these qualities were recognised and revered by academics across the University. At a personal level, his friendship and the integrity of his dealings with me have formed a “golden thread” through my career in the College, and I am sure that many colleagues would share that sentiment.’

‘On behalf of the whole College community, I would like to offer condolences to Sylvia and the rest of the family at this sad time,’ said Claire Craig, Provost of Queen’s. ‘Peter was exceptional in many, many ways and, in particular, in the extent to which he won the respect and affection of Fellows, students and staff alike. I am sorry that, as a relative newcomer, I only met him a few times but, even in those limited exchanges, he conveyed the intellect, curiosity, concern for the College and the good humour that many others saw during his lifetime. The College is rightfully proud of its association with him, and grateful for all he brought to it.’

Peter was internationally known and greatly respected for his contributions to mathematics, its history, and to mathematical education. He achieved eminence in all three fields with works of lasting influence. In the history of mathematics, Peter’s writings are characterised by enormous precision and meticulous attention to detail, qualities that he brought to all of his work. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his comprehensive 2011 edition of the mathematical writings of the precocious and much-romanticised French mathematician Évariste Galois (1811-1832).  Peter’s was the first full English edition, carefully compiled from Parisian archive materials, opening up Galois’s writings to a wider mathematical readership.

‘Peter was a great champion of the study of the history of mathematics,’ said Christopher Hollings (Clifford Norton Senior Research Fellow in the History of Mathematics). ‘He served as president of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, and was the long-term organiser of “Research in Progress”, the society’s annual conference, usually held in Queen’s, for research students in the history of mathematics. Peter’s lifelong commitment to teaching also extended to the history of mathematics: he was a co-founder, along with his great friend and colleague Jackie Stedall (and others), of the Oxford Mathematical Institute’s undergraduate module in the history of mathematics. Many young scholars in the history of mathematics (including me) have benefitted enormously from the sheer breadth of his knowledge, and from his encouragement, always warmly and generously given. The mathematical world has lost not only an eminent scholar but also the kindest of gentlemen.’

‘There are a few people who make a truly outstanding contribution to their academic discipline and community,’ said Jon Keating (Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy, The Queen's College; and President of the London Mathematical Society). ‘There are also some whose personalities are universally admired and appreciated. Peter Neumann was unusual in falling squarely into both categories. He was an exceptionally distinguished scholar and researcher, in both Mathematics and the History of Mathematics, and he was also a famously inspirational teacher and mentor. His contributions to the mathematical community were extremely highly regarded: he had a significant impact at the London Mathematical Society, where he led in modernising the Society’s publications and acted as Vice-President, and he was notably the first Chair of the United Kingdom Mathematics Trust, where he led on advancing the education of young people in mathematics at the national level. However, my abiding memory of Peter is that he was a deeply kind and generous man whose warmth made a lasting impression on everyone he met. He was widely liked and deeply respected, as popular as he was distinguished. He will be greatly missed by the mathematics community.’

Peter was the recipient of many accolades, including a DSc degree from Oxford in 1976, the Lester R. Ford Award from the Mathematical Association of America in 1987, the Senior Whitehead Prize from the London Mathematical Society in 2003, and the David Crighton Medal jointly from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the London Mathematical Society in 2012. He was appointed an Officer in the Order of the British Empire in 2008, for services to education. The University of Oxford gave him a Lifetime Teaching Award in 2008.

In 1996, Peter was a member of the working party that set up the United Kingdom Mathematics Trust (UKMT). He was the first Chairman of its Council, a position that he held until 2004. The early years of the UKMT were not altogether easy, as a group of people with different backgrounds came together to build a new organisation. It was thanks to Peter’s commitment to enhancing the mathematical experience of talented young people, his acute mind, and his great charm and courtesy that the difficulties were overcome, and the foundations were laid for the successful institution that the UKMT is today. A highlight of Peter’s chairmanship was the central role of the UKMT in organising the 2002 International Mathematical Olympiad, hosted in Glasgow, at short notice after the original host country had to withdraw. 

From the UKMT’s early days until his death, Peter was deeply and actively involved in every area of its different activities: from marking weekends, to residentials, to Mathematical Circles, to team challenges. Of particular interest to him was the poster challenge that made up part of the team challenge national finals: he valued and championed its emphasis on not only the exploration of the mathematical content, but on its effective and clear presentation and communication.

He was, and remains, much loved and respected by volunteers and staff across the whole spectrum of UKMT activity.

This sentiment is echoed across the Queen’s community. As Richard Bruce Parkinson (Professor of Egyptology) said: ‘So many acts of kindness (always shrewd) and introductions (always thoughtful) have influenced many lives and careers beyond mathematics and scholarship; so many people have said in the past weeks “I owe Peter so much” (I do). He took other people seriously, and he made a huge difference to them: we have all remembered individual acts across the decades (“he was the first Fellow who ever spoke to me”). He quietly championed the outsider, the diffident. When I was asked at a Stonewall training course to think of an inspiring role-model (alive, dead or fictional), I named Peter: he embodies for me all that is best and most human in the academic world, and always will.’

Since so many friends, colleagues and former students have wanted to share their memories and reflections, we have created an online tribute page to Peter Neumann here.

Peter’s obituary, written by his son, David Neumann, has been published in The Guardian.

A private funeral will be held in the Chapel of The Queen’s College on Monday 18 January 2021 at 11.30 am and a memorial will follow later in the year. The funeral will be open to family and invited friends only, but will be livestreamed for those unable to attend. Please contact the Provost’s Secretary (sara.butler@queens.ox.ac.uk) for details. If you would like to make a donation in memory of Peter, his family have chosen two charities to support. 

Many thanks to the following who helped with this article: Angus Bowie, Rosie Cretney, Christopher Hollings, Jon Keating, Richard Bruce Parkinson and Alan Slomson.