Department of Mathematics and Statistics

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

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24.   Alec; illness and recovery

Aitken’s health was in tatters. Since 1933 he had suffered from what is referred to in letters and the Memoir as ‘throat trouble’, though its diagnosis eluded specialists in Edinburgh and London. On his return from London he was in bed for two weeks, ‘his throat bad and his nerves all to pieces as the result of the long strain and worry’.199 A family holiday to St Abbs in April turned into a fiasco as first Margaret then George succumbed to measles, and they were all forced to return home.

Alec was just able to resume work when the term took up – he would go in and give a lecture, and come back home and go to bed, but on Saturday he became worse and has been in bed all this week.200

Illnesses beset the Aitken household with astonishing regularity. One cannot fail to admire Winifred’s endurance and selflessness in shielding Aitken – as much as she could, for he was often the patient – from their consequences. Part way through the spring term Aitken was too ill to continue at work. He was admitted to hospital for an operation that took a scorched-earth approach to possible sources of infection, and spent five weeks recuperating, in pain and sleeping badly. The familiar omens reappeared, and the equally familiar path to recovery, through work, music, family and the countryside. As when acrobats form a structure that cantilevers into space and settles to equilibrium, we watch, transfixed by his artistry with these primary materials – to be employed again and again in the coming years, under the same necessity – the exquisite orchestration of balance.

199  MWA to Pearl, 4 May 1934.
200  Ibid.

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