Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw DBE DStJ DL MA DPhil LLD DSc FIMA FCP CRNCM
It is typical of the irrepressible spirit and determination of Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, one of the most illustrious Mancunians of her era, that she attributes pre-eminence in her beloved pursuit of mathematics to a profound handicap.
In 1921, at the age of eight she was diagnosed almost completely deaf. But she succeeded beyond measure in overcoming her disadvantage – as one of the country’s most distinguished exponents of mathematics and statistics, a leading educationalist and, before World War II, an accomplished sportswoman in a number of disciplines.
She entered public life in the 1950s and commanded widespread respect in both political and academic arenas, winning early acclaim for her exposure of the shocking state of England’s school buildings and as a resolute champion of education for girls.
Dame Kathleen is passionate about music, having been a prime mover in the foundation of the Royal Northern College of Music, and a keen amateur astronomer – a pursuit she took up in 1990 at the age of 78. A friend of Sir Bernard Lovell and Sir Patrick Moore, she gave her name to the observatory at Lancaster University, where she was former Deputy Pro-Chancellor. She also served in senior positions at Manchester and Salford Universities and Manchester Polytechnic, later Manchester Metropolitan University, and she was invited to become president of the Manchester Statistical Society when it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1983.
Mathematics is one of four “Ms” that have defined Dame Kathleen’s life along with music, mountains and Manchester; there has been no prouder holder of the office of Lord Mayor or recipient of the Freedom of the City. With those honours came a clear sense of duty and responsibility, which, combined with waspish wit and an infectious sense of humour, made her an immensely popular First Citizen.
Dame Kathleen is still resolved to live life to the full, continuing to attend civic and academic ceremonies and, remarkably, being awarded a prestigious prize by the editors of Mathematics Today for an article about her pet subject, magic squares, at the age of almost 95. Famously she was one of the first to produce a formula for solving Rubik’s cube from a random start with an average 80 moves – at the cost of requiring surgery for tendonitis in her thumb.
She graduated from Somerville College, Oxford, in 1933, later finding work at the Shirley Institute, the textile research establishment in Didsbury, deploying her skills in statistical forecasting on which her reputation was forged. She was persuaded to return to Somerville by Kurt Mahler, a renowned mathematician who had come to Manchester from Germany in 1938 and while working as a temporary wartime don she wrote five original research papers, earning her a DPhil degree, conferred in 1945.
A member of the Timpson shoe dynasty, Dame Kathleen has outlived her husband Robert, a leading radiologist and a pioneer of medical illustration who was High Sheriff of Greater Manchester in 1978-9, and both their children. Florence died in 1972 aged just 26 and Charles in 1999. Save for her school and university days, she has lived all her life in south Manchester, moving round the corner to Pine Road from Elm Road in 1952, continuing into her late 90s with her undiminished desire to continue solving mathematical problems.