Department of Mathematics and Statistics

A Necessary Balance: Alec and Harry Aitken 1920-1935
P.C. Fenton

. . .

carrying each a delicate burden

of choices made or about to be made.

Words whisper hopefully in our heads.

Slithering down the track we hold hands

to keep a necessary balance.

 Fleur Adcock, Kilpeck

All this, too, is stitched into the torn richness,

The epic poise

That holds him so steady in his wounds, so loyal to his doom, so patient

In the machinery of heaven.

 Ted Hughes, October Salmon

Alexander Aitken was one of the outstanding mathematicians and statisticians of the twentieth century. A prodigy at school, he endured a patchy and (even for the time) old-fashioned undergraduate education at the University of Otago, punctuated by a period of war service at Gallipoli and the Somme, before a few desultory years teaching at Otago Boys High School. He kept in touch with the University, however, tutoring part-time in mathematics. R.J.T. Bell, then Professor of Mathematics at Otago, recognised his genius and persuaded him to study further. In 1923, at the age of 28, he left New Zealand to take up a scholarship at the University of Edinburgh. By 1936 he was a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Impressive as his mathematical accomplishments are, they are not, except occasionally and peripherally, the focus here. Alexander, or Alec as he was known, had six brothers and sisters: Elizabeth, whom everyone called Pearl (b. 1896); Win (b. 1898); Bill (b.1901); Les (b.1903); Harry (b.1905) and Alan (b. 1907). Alec was the eldest, born on 1 April 1895. Of the other children, Harry was nearest to Alec in temperament and intellectual ability; their early lives followed recognisably similar paths, though in adulthood they diverged. Both suffered repeated mental breakdowns. A psychologist who investigated Alec’s memory and ability at mental calculation commented to me that given his mental history it is surprising that Alec could live a normally productive life; that he achieved so much was nearly heroic. Harry was not so fortunate. His working life had barely begun when he suffered his final, catastrophic breakdown and died in 1934. ‘Balance’ in the title makes a dual reference, to the relationship between Alec and Harry, and to each in his own life.

It was only after the publication of To Catch the Spirit: the Memoir of A.C. Aitken in 1995 that I met Win Kayes, Pearl’s second daughter. The Aitkens’ family life in Dunedin was more unsettled than its depiction in my Introduction to the book suggested, she told me, and promised to send me copies of family letters. These arrived in due course. They indispensably inform the narrative that follows, and explain the brief revisiting, in the opening sections, of family interactions among the Aitkens. I am grateful for her comments on various drafts of this article; the responsibility for the interpretations I have made is nevertheless mine.

In 1996 I interviewed Margaret Mott, Alec’s daughter, in Edinburgh. Her recollections gave me an insight into Alec that I could not otherwise have gained. Perhaps with trepidation, she handed me copies of two notebooks in which Alec collected memories and observations on matters that intrigued him, named by him Miscellaneous Recollections I and II. His internal landscape was immense and fascinating, and it implies no egotism on his part to say that the principal subject of the notebooks is Alec himself. Later Margaret sent me pages from Aitken’s Memoir that she had previously withheld, to do with Harry’s final breakdown. A sheaf of letters from Alec to his Edinburgh colleagues Robin Schlapp and Sidney Newman followed. My debt to her is incalculable.

I was in Edinburgh again in 2014, and visited Margaret at the nursing home where she then lived. Though she was perfectly lucid, Margaret had suffered for several years from a depressive condition that left her all but silent. In the past we had conducted a long and lively correspondence but it was plain the time for such exchanges had gone. Even the few words she spoke cost her an effort of will. She died a few months later, on 21 February 2015.

I had originally intended to write a complete life of Aitken but, despite repeated attempts, could not move beyond the tragedy of 1933-34. The weight of it oppressed me and I came to realise that this abbreviated version would be for me the final one.

I am indebted in various ways to Laurie Aitken, first cousin of Alec and Harry; Neil Aitken, Les’s son; George Aitken, Alec’s son; William Edge; Philip Heywood; Alastair Gillespie; Ian Hunter; Les Kayes, Win’s brother; Joyce Kirk, Alec and Harry’s half-sister; Walter Lederman, who provided me with letters from Alec to William Edge; Elizabeth Mason; John Mott; Nancy Rayner, who sent me letters from Aitken to her husband Arthur, one of Aitken’s students; Elmer Rees; Laurie Taylor. To all of them, my belated but heartfelt thanks.

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