Henry Whitehead

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John Henry Constantine Whitehead (1904-1960), known as Henry Whitehead or J.H.C. Whitehead, was a British mathematician and professor who played an essential role in the Allied victory in World War II through his work with various government ministries, and helped to rescue many Jewish mathematicians who were refugees from the Nazis. His obituary in The Times newspaper described him as "one of our greatest mathematicians," and said "His contributions to topology were both massive and fundamental".

Early Life

Whitehead was born on 11 November 1904 in Madras (now Chennai), India, where his father The Right Rev Henry Whitehead, was Bishop. His mother, Isobel Duncan, the daughter of the Rector of Calne, Wiltshire, had studied mathematics at Oxford University, being one of the early women undergraduates there. The famous mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, was his uncle. When Henry was aged about eighteen months his parents brought him back from India and left him in the care of his grandmother in Oxford, England. His parents then returned to India and Henry saw little of them until his father retired and returned to England when Henry was sixteen.

After prep school Henry went to school at Eton College, where he had a wide range of interests and was known for exuberance, gaiety and athletic prowess as well as intelligence. In 1923 Whitehead won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford University where he was tutored by J W Nicholson, who had been a student of Whitehead's uncle A N Whitehead. However, Nicholson's health was poor and Whitehead was tutored frequently by H Newboult at Merton College.

After gaining a First Class degree in maths, in 1927, Whitehead joined the firm of stockbrokers, Buckmaster and Moore. After one year, Whitehead in 1928 returned to the University of Oxford. There he met Veblen, who was on leave from Princeton University USA. He attended a seminar which Veblen gave on differential geometry and decided that he would undertake research in that topic. Veblen supported Whitehead's application for a Commonwealth Fellowship to enable him to study for a Ph.D. at Princeton.

At Princeton, Whitehead worked mainly on differential geometry although towards the end of his three years there he became interested in topology. He was awarded his doctorate from Princeton in 1932 for a dissertation entitled The Representation of Projective Spaces. Whitehead's joint work with his doctoral supervisor Veblen led to The Foundations of Differential Geometry (1932), now considered a classic. It contains the first proper definition of a differentiable manifold. Near the end of his three years in Princeton, he collaborated with Lefschetz on a paper on topology, proving that all analytic manifolds can be triangulated. In this area he is best remembered for his work on homotopy equivalence. Whitehead retained all his life a deep affection for Princeton.

Whitehead returned to Oxford after being awarded his doctorate and he was elected to a Fellowship at Balliol College in 1933. Soon afterwards he wrote another major work on differential geometry On the Covering of a Complete Space by the Geodesics Through a Point (1935). Whitehead also studied Stiefel manifolds and set up a school of topology at Oxford, where he was a friend and colleague of Max Newman. Students remembered him as an inspiring teacher.

Wartime Career

The Nazi moves against Jewish mathematicians in Germany gave Whitehead great distress, and he actively helped many to escape to safety. In particular he helped Samuel Eilenberg and Max Dehn escape via England to America. Erwin Schrödinger came to live in Whitehead's home after escaping from Austria. Whitehead left Oxford in 1940 to undertake war work in London, at the Board of Trade, the Admiralty, and finally at the Foreign Office, during the War.

Personal Life and Interests

In 1934 Whitehead married Barbara Sheila Carew Smyth, a concert pianist. They shared great zest for life and enjoyed a marriage of surpassing happiness, having two sons. Their home in North Oxford was a meeting place for mathematicians, where there was generally a mug of beer or a cup of tea and always a warm welcome, and a pencil and a block of paper each for host and guest to write their thoughts on. These meetings were attended by colleagues such as Max Newman and Bill Tutte. Whitehead's passions included sport and poker.

Later Life

Whitehead returned to his home in North Oxford when World War II ended. In 1947 he was appointed to the Waynflete Chair of Pure Mathematics at Oxford. At that time Whitehead moved from Balliol College to Magdalen College. Whitehead's death, on 8 May 1960 in Princeton, from a heart attack, while on a visit to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton during a Sabbatical year he was spending in the United States, was totally unexpected. His influence on the development of mathematics during his active lifetime can be partly measured by the innumerable references, implicit and explicit, in current mathematical literature on algebraic and geometric topology. Whitehead was elected to the Royal Society in 1944. He served the London Mathematical Society in a number of ways, most notably as president during 1953-55.

Awards and Honours

Fellow of the Royal Society 1944.

Waynflete Chair 1947-1960.

LMS Berwick Prize winner 1948.

BMC morning speaker 1949, 1950, 1953.

LMS President 1953-1955.

[1] [2]


  1. Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Whitehead_Henry.html
  2. Obituary, The Times, 14 May 1960