Sir Edmund Taylor Whittaker (1873-1956)

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Sir Edmund Taylor Whittaker (1873-1956), photograph by W. & E. Drummond Young, Edinburgh University Archives (EUA CA1/1/14)
Sir Edmund Taylor Whittaker (1873-1956) was Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University from 1912 to 1946.


Whittaker was born in Southport on 24 October 1873 to John Whittaker, and his wife Selina Septima. He was educated by his Mother until age eleven, when he entered Manchester Grammar School. In 1892, Whittaker was awarded a scholarship for Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained several honours including the Tyson Medal (1895), was elected a Fellow of Trinity (1896), and was awarded the first Smith's Prize (1897). In 1901, Whittaker married Mary Ferguson McNaghten, with whom he had three sons and two daughters.

Professor of Mathematics

Whittaker was appointed Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin in 1906, remaining there until 1912 when he accepted the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. He would remain in this post until his retirement in 1946, when he was succeeded by Alexander Craig Aitken (1895-1967). His tenure was a highly successful one, resulting in one of the first university mathematical laboratories in Britain, a flourishing research output from the department, and the development of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. Whittaker's research in pure mathematics was extensive, exploring the theories of interpolation, automorphic functions, potential theory, and special functions; while his research in mathematical physics explored dynamics, relativity, electromagnetic theory, and quantum theory.

Whittaker was instrumental in bringing Walter Ledermann (1911-2009), to Edinburgh University, offering him a bursary of £50 as a visiting student. Whittaker encouraged Ledermann to attend the statistical lectures of Alexander Craig Aitken, who introduced him to Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson (1881-1955), holder of the Bell Chair of Education at the University of Edinburgh, and Director of Edinburgh Provincial Training Centre (later Moray House College of Education). Thomson employed Ledermann as a mathematical assistant on the Carnegie-funded project that led to his seminal book The Factorial Analysis of Human Ability.

Honours and Recognition

Many honours were bestowed on Whittaker throughout his career, culminating in a knighthood in 1945. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1905, served on the Council of the Society (1911-1912, 1933-1935), and became Vice-President (1934-1935). The Royal Society also awarded him the Copley Medal (1954) and the Sylvester medal (1931). Whittaker served as President for the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1939-1944), the Mathematical Association (1920-1921), the Mathematical and Physical section of the British Association (1927), and the London Mathematical Society (1928-1929).

Notable Publications

A Course of Modern Analysis (1902)

Treatise on the Analytical Dynamics of Particles and Rigid Bodies (1904)

The Theory of Optical Instruments (1907)

The Theory of Aether and Electricity (1910)

The Calculus of Observations (1924)

Key Dates

  • 1873 - Birth, Southport, England, 24 October
  • 1895 - Graduated BSc, University of Cambridge
  • 1896 - Elected Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge
  • 1897 - Awarded Smith's Prize, University of Cambridge
  • 1905 - Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1906-1912 - Professor of Astronomy, University of Dublin
  • 1912-1946 - Professor of Mathematics, University of Edinburgh
  • 1920-1921 - President of the Mathematical Association
  • 1929 - Gunning Prizeman, Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • 1931 - Awarded Sylvester Medal by Royal Society
  • 1934-1935 - Vice-President, Royal Society
  • 1939-1944 - President, Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • 1945 - Knighted
  • 1949 - Honorary Fellow, University of Cambridge
  • 1954 - Awarded Copley Medal by Royal Society
  • 1956 - Death, Edinburgh, Scotland, 24 March


  • G. Temple, ‘Whittaker, Sir Edmund Taylor (1873–1956)’, rev. I. Grattan-Guinness, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [[1], accessed 29 May 2014]