Person: Kermack, William
William Kermack was a chemist who lost his sight in a laboratory accident and turned instead to applying mathematics to biological problems.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- After sitting the Aberdeen Bursary Competition, Kermack began his studies at Aberdeen University in 1914.
- He was taught by William Soddy (1877-1956) who had worked with Ernest Rutherford on radioactivity before being appointed to the chair in Aberdeen in 1914.
- Kermack attended Soddy's course on radioactivity but found him "a somewhat remote personality." He found the mathematics courses by John Hilton Grace (1873-1958) and the statistics courses by James Fowler Tocher (1964-1945) much more interesting and exciting.
- Before continuing with his academic studies, Kermack spent six months undertaking military service with the R.A.F. as an aircraftman 2nd class, the lowest rank known colloquially as "AC plonk." He was stationed at the Royal Air Force Station Martlesham Heath, the home of the Aeroplane Experimental Unit, near Woodbridge in Suffolk.
- After completing military service, in April 1919 he went to work under William Henry Perkin (1860-1929), the Waynflete Professor of Chemistry at Oxford.
- Kermack worked with a group which was part of the British Dyestuffs Corporation but he also assisted other researchers at the Laboratory and published a number of papers in collaboration with various colleagues such as William Perkin, the expert on plant dyestuffs and alkaloids Robert Robinson, and the bacteriologist Hedley D Wright.
- These topics would be major lines of research throughout Kermack's career.
- In February 1921 Kermack left Oxford and moved to Scotland where he was appointed as head of the Chemical Section of the Royal College of Physicians Laboratory in Edinburgh.
- In Edinburgh, Kermack continued to work in the areas he had begun in the Dyson Perrins Laboratory, continuing his study of harmine and of colloids.
- Before Kermack had his accident he had met Elizabeth Raimunda Blazquez and they had begun to think of marriage.
- Elizabeth was a great support to Kermack in helping and encouraging him so we should say a little about her background.
- William and Elizabeth Kermack had one son, Derek Ogilvy Kermack, born 29 December 1926.
- For the next 25 years Kermack led a pattern of life which followed a regular and active routine.
- Kermack and McKendrick began developing mathematical models for epidemics, publishing the paper A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Epidemics in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1927.
- Not only did Kermack apply mathematics and statistics to problems in biochemistry but he also became involved in collaborative research with colleagues in the Mathematics Department at the University of Edinburgh.
- Kermack saw immediately that Whittaker's ideas required in the first place an algebra of operators of a novel sort.
- These four joint Kermack-McCrea papers were: An operational method for the solution of linear partial differential equations (1930-31), On Professor Whittaker's solution of differential equations by definite integrals.
- The team consisted of a chemist (Kermack) and a physicist (McCrea), both of whom worked in Edinburgh at the time.
- These results are presented in the papers Kermack and McCrea (1931a,b), which were written in what was by then a very unrigorous language.
- Around this time Kermack also published a joint paper with E T Whittaker and W H McCrea, On properties of null geodesics and their application to the theory of radiation (1932-33), and a joint paper with W H McCrea, On Milne's theory of world structure (1933).
- Kermack was one of the invited main speakers delivering the course of lectures Mathematics of Population Growth.
- It was impossible not to admire Dr Kermack's masterful exposition of his complicated subject matter, aided by lantern slides displaying his formulae but without the gift of sight.
Born 26 April 1898, Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland. Died 20 July 1970, Aberdeen, Scotland.
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Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive