Walter Ledermann (1911-2009)

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Walter Ledermann (1911-2009) worked as a mathematical assistant to Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson (1881-1955).

Early Years

Walter Ledermann was born on 18 Mar 1911 in Berlin, Germany. His father was a physician, but Ledermann grew up in straitened circumstances, amidst the economic crisis that followed World War I and culminated in the Great Depression. Ledermann was a promising student from an early age, and a keen violinist. He received his leaving certificate from the Leibniz Gymnasium early due to his performance in classics and mathematics, which allowed him to complete his degree in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Berlin. There he encountered several mathematicians and physicists of note who inspired him, including Issai Schur, Heinz Hopf, Max Plank, and Erwin Shrodinger.

On completion of his degree, it became clear to Ledermann that he could no longer stay in Germany. He won a scholarship created by students at St Andrews to support a Jewish refugee, during which time his brother was working in Edinburgh to gain a medical qualification. Ledermann was awarded his PhD after two years.

Ledermann and Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson

Encouraged by Professor Turnbull of St Andrews University, Ledermann sought an interview with Professor Edmund Whittaker at the University of Edinburgh with a view to seeking employment there. Whittaker invited him to come as a visiting student to Edinburgh for one term, offering him a bursary of £50 and encouraging him to attend the classes of Alexander Craig Aitken (1895-1967), who lectured on Statistics and Mathematical Economics. Aitken quickly became a friend to Ledermann, and 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). At that time, Thomson required a mathematical assistant for a Carnegie funded project which would eventually result in the publication of his seminal book, The Factorial Analysis of Human Ability, and he immediately offered Ledermann the post. Ledermann's work with Thomson was interrupted for 6 months in 1937 when Ledermann accepted a post teaching at the University of Dundee. He returned to work with Thomson in Edinburgh until 1938, when he took a lecturer's post in the University of St Andrews.

Post-Edinburgh Career

In 1940, Ledermann's naturalization was completed, and he was also awarded his DSc from the University of Edinburgh. He married his wife, Ruth Ledermann, a social worker, in 1946, later having a son, Jonathon. The couple moved to Manchester, where Ledermann was worked as a lecturer in pure mathematics in the University of Manchester, from 1946-1962.

In 1962 Ledermann gained a lecture post at the new University of Sussex, where he eventually became a professor. He found the atmosphere of the modern university highly stimulating, and taught for two further years past the statutory age of retirement (then 65). Even after his official retirement in 1978, Ledermann continued to give occasional courses and revision classes to his students until 1997, when he and Ruth, by then a psychotherapist, moved to London.

Key Dates

  • 1911 - Birth, Berlin, Germany, 18 March
  • 1936 - Graduated PhD, University of St Andrews
  • 1936-1938 - Assistant to Professor Godfrey Thomson, University of Edinburgh
  • 1940 - Graduated DSc, University of Edinburgh
  • 1946-1962 - Lecturer in Pure Mathematics, University of Manchester
  • 1962-1965 - Lecturer in Mathematics, University of Sussex
  • 1965-1978 - Professor of Mathematics, University of Sussex
  • 2009 - Death, London, 22 May



  • Walter Ledermann, Encounters of a Mathematician (London: Walter Ledermann, 2009)
  • Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson, Education of an Englishman (Edinburgh: Moray House College of Education, 1969)