A mathematician of exceptional influence in school mathematics

To be awarded, after competition, one of the most prestigious prizes that the University of Cambridge can offer must be the ambition of every good young mathematician. And so it was that Martyn Cundy took the Rayleigh Prize in 1937 for an essay on “Motion in a Tetrahedral Field”. With a background of distinctions in Higher Certificate in Mathematics, Divinity, Latin and Greek, of being a Wrangler in 1934 and a starred examinee in Part III of the Mathematical Tripos in 1935, he must have seemed to his contemporaries – to other prize winners such as Alan Turing, Harry Pitt and Fred Hoyle, all future Fellows of the Royal Society – a natural for an immediate Research Fellowship at Trinity and a long university career. But instead, he went in 1938 to Sherborne School to teach mathematics, and so to become gradually the greatest teacher of the subject of his generation, and an inspiration to all who came across him in whatever capacity. Even in the golden inter-war years of education when it was still common for those with good first-class degrees to go into the grammar schools and the better independents (alas, no longer), it was still astonishing that a Rayleigh prize-winner should do so – but if Martyn was a loss to university mathematics, he was an even greater gain to schools.

Born just before Christmas 1913, he must, as a boy, have picked up the roots of his deep Christian faith from his priest father who even named him after a forebear – the missionary Henry Martyn who himself, almost as an omen, had been Senior Wrangler in 1801. So at Cambridge he began, as secretary of the 1932 Cambridge Prayer Fellowship, what became a most active life of Christian witness. In turn, a Methodist lay preacher, the author of The Faith of a Christian, an elder in the Malawi Presbyterian Church, a lay reader in Kendal (and organist), and winner of the Diocese of Carlisle 850th Anniversary Hymn Writing Competition. And each year his friends looked forward to receiving a Christmas card with a delightful line drawing and a brief Nativity verse inside. He had no enemies and his excellent personal relations must have been at least partly due to the serenity and composure, which went hand in hand with his spiritual strength.

He first came to the notice of the wider mathematical community in 1951 with the publication of Mathematical Models, jointly with A P Rollett. Still in print (itself a testimony to its excellence) this book became an inspiration for generations of mathematics teachers. But throughout his life there poured forth a continuous stream of at least fifty delightful and erudite articles published in the Mathematical Gazette. It was typical that many were based on some every-day artefact. But many others revolved round his fascination with triangles and their associated lines, circles and cubic curves. Such a paper in 2003 was voted “article of the year” and the last, published at the end of 2004, contained what must be the most complicated geometrical figure ever printed – and that despite the failing eyesight which distressed him in recent years. More substantial research papers were published in the Journal of Geometry.

In 1961, however, there came the opportunity for decisive influence on school mathematics. In that year three heads of mathematics – Tom Jones from Winchester , Douglas Quadling from Marlborough with Martyn Cundy from Sherborne – met largely at the instigation of Bryan Thwaites (then a professor at Southampton and now Sir Bryan) to consider formulating new syllabusses at O- and A-level. They were an exceptional and remarkable trio and it is unlikely that such a powerful group could be formed nowadays from schools. They were hugely ambitious in their plans which included not merely new content but the writing of entirely new, and novel, texts and teachers’ guides, together with a large continuing programme of residential teacher-training courses. For these purposes, many more teachers became involved and a formal organisation was created with the name The School Mathematics Project. The SMP (as it became known) rapidly became the dominant player in the reform of school mathematics and its influence spread internationally and notably in Africa . And now, it is the only project of those heady years of curriculum reform in the early sixties which still operates.

In this great and complicated exercise Martyn Cundy played a hugely influential role in two respects. First, his profound knowledge enabled him to see mathematics in the round. There were connections between geometry and calculus and algebra which could be explored to the great advantage of the texts and which could kindle the interest of pupils. His own writing was always of the highest quality, clear and concise; and his tactful comments on the writing of others were always gratefully received. It is impossible to exaggerate the benefits which he bestowed on the evolution and final presentation of the SMP texts. In particular he edited both volumes of Advanced Mathematics (1968) which many would say were the finest sixth-form books ever written.

Second, however, was his quiet influence within working groups. The SMP necessarily spawned committees and planning meetings of all sorts. But Martyn was no committee man in the bureaucratic sense. Instead he was the great conciliator. He would look around an argumentative group without taking much part and simply make some quizzical remark which would not only suggest a solution but also settle tempers. And he viewed Bryan Thwaites, the SMP Director – who rather prided himself on his skill in administration and finance – with similarly quizzical amusement. Nevertheless, he was for a time Deputy Director and an initial Trustee when the SMP became a Registered Charity in 1967.

It was the SMP’s growing involvement in overseas education that led Martyn to the Chair of Mathematics in Malawi in 1968. The missionary zeal which was always latent in him no doubt played a part in his decision to help the fledgling university which had recently moved from Blantyre to Lilongwe , and he threw himself with gusto into its development. Mathematics may have been his first responsibility there, but he did not hesitate to enter other university areas such as student housing, staff welfare and provision for religious worship. He had little difficulty in responding appropriately to local culture and customs, learning the local language Chichewa on the way. As always he was admirably supported by his wife Kittie whom he married in 1939 – she herself having been a mathematics student at Cambridge where they had first met.

Martyn’s love affair with mountains went back to his earliest days, so he and Kittie took especial joy in walking the great African spaces. Their frequent guests from the UK were almost invariably offered a couple of days high up on Mount Mulanje , that wonderful outcrop immortalised by Laurence van de Post’s memorable tale. Nearer home was the Zomba plateau for which they wrote and published a walkers’ guide. And it was typical of Martyn’s approach to mathematics that he wrote an A-level question based on his observation of the plateau’s afternoon shadow moving on the plain below.

Returning to the UK in 1975 and after a brief stint in the Caribbean for the British Council, he and Kittie settled down in Kendal so as to be members of a lively church encompassed about by mountains. There followed nearly thirty years of wide-ranging activity during which he gave more than he received.

Martyn Cundy was a man of huge talent and influence, beloved and respected by all who knew him and admired by so many who did not. His bequest, with Kittie, spans their two chief interests – Christianity and mathematics – for two of their sons were Heads of Mathematics and the other is Bishop of Peterborough. He can now look down with much quiet satisfaction.

Henry Martyn Cundy, mathematician, was born on December 23, 1913. He died on February 25, 2005, aged 91.

Obituary written by Professor Sir Bryan Thwaites for The Times