The first professor of mathematics at King’s was appointed in 1830. In time the department of mathematics was created and over the years it has established a reputation as a world-leading centre for study and research in pure and applied mathematics.
Prominent figures of the past who were members of the department include the applied mathematician and educationalist George Jeffery (1891-1957), the applied mathematician and analyst George Temple (1901-1992), the algebraic geometer John (Jack) Semple (1904-1985), the general relativists George McVittie (1904-1988), Hermann Bondi (1919-2005), Clive Kilmister (1924-2010) and Felix Pirani (1928-2015), the number theorist Albrecht (Ali) Fröhlich (1916-2001) and the quantum field theorist and neural networks investigator John G. Taylor (1931-2012).
While important work was done earlier it is fair to say that a sustained research culture within the department first developed in the 1930’s with the appointment of George Temple in 1932 and Jack Semple in 1936. Together they re-invigorated the Department’s research and teaching. Temple’s own research covered a broad range of problems in applied mathematics, including general relativity, quantum mechanics and fluids. During the Second World War he was seconded to Farnborough, where he worked on problems in aerodynamics. Subsequently, both at King’s and after he’d been appointed to the Sedleian Chair at Oxford he made important contributions to Schwartz’s new theory of distributions. Semple’s contributions to, and books about, algebraic geometry attracted strong international recognition. While Temple was away at Farnborough (and during the period when the Department had to relocate to Bristol) Semple acted as head of department in his place and succeeded him when Temple left for Oxford in 1953.
The department has a long history of research into general relativity beginning with the pioneering work of George Jeffery who spent two years in the department from 1922. George McVittie joined the department as a reader in 1936. He made well-known contributions to general relativity and cosmology. During the second world war McVittie was seconded to Bletchley Park where he was founder and head of the meteorology group. After the war he returned to King’s until he was appointed to a professorship at Queen Mary College in 1948. The most notable work on general relativity by members of the department was carried out in the quarter of a century or so after the appointment of Hermann Bondi to a Chair in 1954. Already well known for earlier contributions to cosmology, Bondi formed a general relativity group. Initially this consisted of himself, Clive Kilmister, who had come to King’s in 1951 as an assistant lecturer, and Felix Pirani, who joined the department as a lecturer in 1955. Kilmister and Pirani became professors in the 1960’s when personal professorships, in addition to the two established Chairs, began to be conferred. The relativity group quickly developed into an international centre of excellence and its members carried out ground breaking research. The outstanding work on gravitational radiation by Pirani, Bondi and others, in the 1950’s and 60’s, was acknowledged when the 2017 Nobel Prize was awarded to members of the LIGO consortium. Further fundamentally important research, now on the classical and quantum aspects of black holes, was carried out by members of the department in the 1970’s.
Bondi notionally succeeded Semple as head of department when the latter retired in 1969 but he was in fact on leave heading the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) then. Albrecht Fröhlich acted in his place and then succeeded him. Fröhlich joined the department as a reader in 1955 and became a professor in 1962. He was a distinguished number theorist and made outstanding contributions to algebraic number theory, in particular class field theory, the local Langlands conjectures and Galois module structure. He collaborated widely and his work, the work of his group at King’s College including subsequent work by his students, had a major impact on the subject internationally.
Bondi resigned in 1971 to become Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, although he remained titular professor, and John G. Taylor was appointed to replace him. At that time Taylor was a quantum field theorist with interests in neural networks. His appointment marked the beginning of sustained research activity within the department into quantum field theory and its subsequent developments such as string theory. By the time he retired in 1996 Taylor was devoting his time to studying neural networks and had become well-known in that field. He remained Director of the Centre for Neural Networks at King’s College, with an active research programme until his death.
When Fröhlich retired in 1981 he was succeeded as head of department by Clive Kilmister. Felix Pirani and Kilmister retired in 1983 and 1984 respectively by which time King’s was commencing a merger with Chelsea and Queen Elizabeth Colleges. The mathematics departments of these three Colleges were merged in 1985, but four mathematicians from Bedford College had already joined the department a year earlier. Bedford, Chelsea and Queen Elizabeth Colleges closed in 1985.
Find out more about the former Heads of Department, and the history of Analysis and General Relativity at King's College London.
The material in these pages is based on King's records, obituaries and the memories of some retired staff. It may be modified and expanded in the future.