Born: October 1, 1912 Died: August 10, 2014

Loading article content

Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who has died aged 101, was a gifted mathematician who overcame deafness to tackle some of the greatest challenges of maths. She was also a government adviser to Margaret Thatcher and a former governor and president of St Leonards, the independent school in St Andrews.

She was born Kathleen Timpson, the granddaughter of the founder of Timpson Shoes, and as a child suffered from otosclerosis, a condition of the middle ear. She was partially deaf until she began using one of the first hearing aids in her thirties, although she also believed her deafness was one of the reasons she took to mathematics with enthusiasm. It was one of the few subjects where being deaf was not a disadvantage; for a similar reason, she enjoyed school sport and excelled at it.

When she was 13, she was sent to St Leonards, a girl's boarding school in St Andrews, where she excelled at maths despite the resistance of some teachers who believed that there was little point in her studying it when her only career option would be teaching and that was ruled out because of her deafness.

"I never aspired to being a professional mathematician, or to being a professional anything for that matter," she said. "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."

After St Leonards, she won a scholarship to study maths at Oxford, where she attended a public lecture given by Albert Einstein and obtained a first class degree. After a spell as a secretary, she joined the Shirley Institute, the research centre into the weaving industry in Didsbury. She worked there as a statistician and discovered methods to complete a task in six hours that usually took six days. She also worked on designing a cotton canvas that would be impervious to water for making tents for the Army.

She gave up work at the institute after starting a family but later returned to Somerville College as a tutor and took up a part-time lecturing position at Manchester University. The subject which fascinated her most was so-called magic squares, an arrangement of numbers in a grid where the numbers in each row, and in each column, and the numbers in the forward and backward main diagonals, all add up to the same number. Dame Kathleen calculated with colleague Hermann Bondi there were 880 such squares and explored the subject in detail in her 1998 work Most Perfect Pandiagonal Squares: Their Construction and Enumeration.

In 1951, she became a member of the governing body of St Leonards school and was its president from 1981 to 2003. She subsequently became the school's representative on the Association of Governing Bodies of Girls' Public Schools. In 1952, she became a member of the National Council of Women and produced an influential report on the state of school buildings in Manchester. From 1956 until 1981 she was elected as a Conservative member of Manchester City Council.

In 1970, she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to education and in 1975 was elected Lord Mayor of Manchester. Her time as mayor later inspired a children's book The Lord Mayor's Party.

One of her great aims was to pass her love of maths on to children. "Every true mathematician sees mathematics everywhere," she once said. "In a child's swing or a pendulum, in the outline shape of a tree and that of its leaves, in the clouds, in the way a circular tube is made from straight strips of paper." She was a foundation fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and served first as its vice president and then its president from 1978-79. In the 1980s, she became an adviser on education matters to Margaret Thatcher's government.

She was married to Robert Ollerenshaw, a boy she met while at school. She once said that she knew it was true love when Robert gave her his slide rule. "He felt he wouldn't be needing mathematics and I would make better use of it," she said. "This slide rule was of a superior design: large, with a powerful cursor. He had made a leather case for it and I counted this as the mark of true love." Robert died in 1986. They had two children, Florence and Charles, who also predeceased her.