Papers of Professor Alexander C. Aitken (1895-1967)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection is composed of: autobiographical, biographical, memoir, and obituary material relating to Professor A. C. Aitken; war souvenirs and maps; correspondence relating to Aitken's publication From Gallipoli to the Somme; review material relating to  From Gallipoli to the Somme; circa 20 photographs, both portrait and group; 3 commonplace (scrap-)books containing cuttings and newspaper articles on a variety of subjects - some relating to New Zealand; circa 60 musical scores, and letters and printed matter that had been contained within the musical material; photographs of an area near Nelson, New Zealand; material relating to Aitken from Professor N. Kemmer; papers and correspondence relating to his work at Edinburgh University; letters and copies of letters from Aitken to Dr. Robert Schlapp, 1933-1970; letters to Robin Schlapp transcribed from diaries, 1923-1958; and letters to and from family and friends.

There is a folder of material with legal documents and personal material: relating to Aitken's estate; commission by the curators of Edinburgh University in favour of Professor Aitken; birth certificate of his wife, 11 May 1894; letters of testimonial, 1923; letter from Royal Society of Literature; and, material relating to illness in 1926.

The collection also contains some off-prints and publications by Aitken:  The case against decimalisation (1962), and  The art of mental calculations; with demonstrations  (1954); Hunter, Ian M. L. An exceptional memory (1977); and, Hunter, Ian M. L. An exceptional talent for calculative thinking  (1962).

Administrative / Biographical History

The mathematician, statistician, writer, composer and musician, Alexander Craig Aitken, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 1 April 1895. He was of Scottish descent. He attended Otago Boys' High School from 1908 to 1912. On winning a university scholarship in 1912 he went on to study at the University of Otago in 1913, enrolling in Mathematics, French and Latin. Studies were cut short by the 1914-1918 War however and he enlisted in 1915 serving with the Otago Infantry. Aitken saw action in Gallipoli and Egypt, and he was wounded during the Battle of the Somme. After his hospitalisation, he returned to New Zealand in 1917.

On the completion of his studies in 1920, Aitken became a school-teacher at Otago Boys' High School and the same year he married Winifred Betts the first lecturer in Botany at the University of Otago where he also did some tutoring. Then, encouraged by a professor of mathematics at the University, he gained a postgraduate scholarship which brought him to Edinburgh University in 1923. His thesis on statistics gained him the degree of D.Sc. in 1925 when he also joined the University staff as a lecturer in Statistics and Mathematical Economics. In 1937 he was promoted to Reader, and in 1946 was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics.

Aitken's publications include: jointly with H. W. Turnbull,  The theory of canonical matrices (1932); with D. E. Rutherford, a series of Mathematical Texts; wartime experiences in  Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand infantryman (1963); and, posthumously  To catch the spirit. The memoir of A.C. Aitken with a biographical introduction by P.C. Fenton (1995). He made many important contributions to the many fields of his subject, particularly in the theory of Matrix Algebra and its application to various branches of mathematics. In his time, Professor Aitken was one of the fastest mathematical calculators in the world.

While at school, Aitken had learned to play the violin, and later on in life he played both the violin and viola and composed pieces for performance by university groups.

Professor Alexander C. Aitken died in Edinburgh on 3 November 1967.

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The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Obituary. University of Edinburgh journal. p.255. Vol.23. 1967-1968. (2) Aitken, A. C. To catch the spirit. The memoir of A.C. Aitken with a biographical introduction by P.C. Fenton. University of Otago Press, 1995.

Other Finding Aids

None prepared.

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections.

Geographical Names