Mathematician and teacher who helped shape education in Africa

Born: May 9, 1933;

Died: December 8, 2017

PAT Hiddleston, who has died aged 84, was a Scottish educationalist and mathematician who had a huge influence in shaping education in developing countries. For many years, she was headmistress of St Margaret’s School in Edinburgh but it was as principal of Durban Girls College in South Africa that she helped oversee the transition to multi-cultural education in the country. She also played a role in encouraging more girls in Malawi to study maths and science.

She was born in Troon, the only and eldest daughter of Harry and Jessie Wallace proprietors of the popular Ardneil Hotel. She was dux at her school and studied mathematics and natural philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1952 graduating in 1956 with a double first.

Being one of only four women in a maths class of over 100, and the only woman in her final honours class of 15, was not easy. Some of her (all male) tutors refused to speak to her but in one of her exams she scored 100 per cent and she was the first woman to be awarded the Napier medal for mathematics by the university in 1956. She was a brilliant scholar and could have gone on to Cambridge had it not been for her choosing to accompany the man she loved to Africa.

In her final year at school she had met a young teacher from Kirkcudbright, George Hiddleston. They fell in love and married within a month of her graduation. They applied to the Colonial Office for a posting abroad and were sent to in Northern Rhodesia. There they remained for the next 14 years, staying well after independence, developing a deep love for the country and giving birth to their four children there.

While George worked his way up in the service from teacher to a senior role in the Zambian Ministry of Education, Pat set about completing her doctorate through the University of South Africa. Later she was appointed as the first academic in the maths department of the new University of Zambia.

Pat and George returned to Scotland in 1970 and remained there, raising their family of four, until 1984 when they returned to the continent they loved so much. For most of those years, Pat was the proud, relentlessly hard working and extremely popular headmistress of St Margaret’s School in Edinburgh. It was said that there was not a single pupil whose name she did not know and it is likely that there is not a single former pupil who does not hold a special story of this unusual and unique headmistress. On leaving a decade later, in typical ambitious fashion, Pat organised a day trip for the whole school by hiring two trains to transport all the staff and students to York.

In 1984 she accepted an offer to become principal of Durban Girls College in South Africa at a period of the country’s history marked by the state of emergency and subsequently the dying gasps of the apartheid regime. The school had committed to admitting all races and Pat was the headmistress who would introduce and oversee that gradual transition. She also threw herself into the politics of the country and was relentless in her desire to encourage a multi-cultural ethic in a once single race school - something, with the support of the Governors and parents of the school that, despite opposing national policies, she succeeded in achieving.

Her commitment to shaping education in developing countries then drew her back to central Africa in 1988 when she was offered a position in maths education at the University of Malawi. There she pursued her passions of encouraging girls into maths and sciences and re-energising teacher training. And there she remained until some months after George died in 1995. Though shaken by his loss, she had a close, loving family and very many friends together with an equally strong love of her work to fall back on. Both, for the rest of her life, were to provide her with the support and determination to strive for what became achievement after achievement.

Over the next 20 years, she developed a demanding and successful international consulting career advising governments on encouraging girls into science, teacher training and the development of their education. Her impact expanded from her beloved Africa to Asia and to Central and Eastern Europe igniting a fascination for their histories and cultures. Today, millions of children across the globe learn from textbooks she helped write or edit and from the thousands of teachers she helped train and inspire.

Throughout Nepal, Namibia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Ghana, Cambodia and Vietnam, amongst others, she would sit with her local counterparts on the ground, ride on the backs of motorbikes, take local buses on precarious mountain roads, stay in the same hotels or guesthouses and eat the same food as her local colleagues and never think anything of it. She loved her work, the countries she served, and the people she met and worked with, and that, for her, was all that mattered.

At the age of 81, she proudly volunteered at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and she was still working at the age of 82 in Bangladesh, when she became ill in early 2016 with what was to be later diagnosed as ovarian cancer.