Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw 1912 – 2014
Mathematician & politician.
Dame Kathleen’s extraordinary life is testimony to the fact that it’s never too late to learn, to teach and find delight in new things; and whatever your circumstances you can strive to find and follow your passions.
Born with a hereditary hearing condition, age eight an ear infection left her almost completely deaf. She was taught to lip read, and, while she did well in mainstream school, she found special comfort in maths
“the one subject in which I was at no disadvantage… Mathematics became my lifeline as well as an increasing source of joy… If you are deaf, you are glad to ‘get by’, to keep up with others in an ordinary class-room and not to be condemned as being lazy, inattentive or merely ‘slow’. I worked carefully and accurately, getting answers right first time, and so became very fast.”
She studied Maths at Oxford University and for her PhD published ground breaking research on ‘critical lattices’ – or how to make the best use of space when stacking objects.
After graduating Dame Kathleen used her maths skills to troubleshoot textile production problems for the Shirley Institute, a cotton technology research centre in Didsbury. In 1939, to overcome a shortage of flax for army tents she design a weaving pattern for a waterproof cotton fabric. She later wrote: “it was a matter of geometry – pure mathematics – a nice problem that had a neat and successful solution.”
Dame Kathleen used statistics to influence government policy on social issues. She campaigned tirelessly for improving standards in schools, and the importance of education for girls. Published in 1955 her statistical report on the state of Britain’s crumbling school buildings led the government to release funds for capital building programs.
Dame Kathleen had a lifelong love for music and rhythm. She learnt to better appreciate concerts by playing pieces in advance at top volume on the gramophone and in the early 1950s her passion was taken to a whole new level when an efficient aid was developed. In the 1960s she played a pivotal role in establishing the Royal Northern College of Music, even to the extent of driving her car round and round the building site through the night to stop it from being occupied by travellers.
She was Conservative councillor for Rusholme 1956 – 1981, and the first woman to sit on Manchester City Council’s finance committee. In the 1960s she chaired a national education committee advising MPs about schools and in 1971 was made a Dame for “services to education”. In 1975 – 6 she served as mayor of Manchester, and in 1984 she was granted the freedom of the city, the highest honour a city can bestow.
In the 1970s Dame Kathleen went against the grain for a Conservative councilor by actively supporting setting up a lesbian and gay community centre in the city. Her views on gay issues had been influenced by her time working with mathematician Alan Turing at Manchester University. She had enormous respect for the computer genius, who’d been a Second World War code breaking hero playing a pivotal part in helping Britain reach victory. Turing died in 1954, ending his life two years after being convicted of homosexuality.
A competitive spirit, Dame Kathleen loved the challenge of being the first to crack a maths conundrum. In 1980 she was first past the post to find a general solution the Rubik’s cube – but all that cube twisting left her needing surgery on her right thumb.
Dame Kathleen achieved so much in later life. In her 70s, she became a keen amateur astronomer, jetting round the world and scrambling up mountains to gain the best view of comets and eclipses. In her 80s Dame Kathleen solved a timeless mathematical ‘magic square’ conundrum, (like Sudoku, but infinitely more complicated).
Aged 93, she published her autobiography ‘To Talk of Many Things’, in which she highlights:
“The delight of discovery is not a privilege reserved solely for the young.”