James Lighthill

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 103 LIGHTHILL
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
      English French Dutch Portuguese
  • Physical Description
      125 boxes

Scope and Content

Papers of Sir Michael James Lighthill. Includes working papers, lecture notes, publications, correspondence and personal papers dating from the 1970s-1990s.

Section A, Biographical, presents obituaries and tributes, biographical accounts and bibliographies, three volumes of notes on mathematics that Lighthill began in November 1940 before he went to Cambridge as a student and a sequence of appointment diaries from Lighthill's period as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, 1969-1979, and his 1989 'desk diary' at University College London. The largest series of papers relate to Lighthill's many honours and awards including certificates in a variety of formats, 1953-1996.

Section B, Research, covers the period 1956-1995 and comprises the contents of Lighthill's containers: folder, box folder, filing cabinet divider, etc. organised alphabetically by title of container. The contents may include manuscript notes and drafts, manuscript working, offprints by Lighthill and others, and correspondence. Topics include aerodynamic aspects of animal flight, aquatic animal locomotion, biofluiddynamics, 'early fish work' and flagellar hydrodynamics. The assignment of much of this material to 'Research' is tentative since many of the containers contained papers relating to publications, lectures, visits and conferences, etc.

Section C, University of Manchester, is not extensive, providing records of Lighthill's teaching for about ten years from 1949 to 1959, though much of the material is undated. The material is predominantly Lighthill's manuscript notes and drafts for courses such as mechanics, methods of mathematical physics, fundamentals of thermodynamics and magnetohydrodynamics and plasma physics.

Section D, Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, presents Lighthill's 'Personal and Confidential' correspondence as Director, 1959-1964, the transcript of a 1962 lecture by Lighthill to the Chemistry and Metallurgy and Physics Departments and a number of technical memoranda and reports prepared by the Director.

Section E, Imperial College London, is small, documenting Lighthill's Royal Society Research Professorship there (including announcement and terms of appointment, research reports and budgets), the Physiological Flow Studies Unit with which Lighthill collaborated, principally the contents of Lighthill's 'Origins of PFSU' folder, a little teaching material (physics and mathematical topics for physiologists and doctors interested in research) and Lighthill's Farewell Lecture.

Section F, University of Cambridge, is predominantly teaching material for courses on aerodynamic sound generation, biological fluid dynamics and mathematical methods. There are also papers relating to the campaign for changes in statutes at Trinity College, which led to the admission of women, and to a proposed Cambridge University swimming pool.

Section G, University College London, comprises documentation of institutional planning during Lighthill's Provostship, his speeches and addresses as Provost, and correspondence, principally the contents of a folder titled 'Provost's Personal Letters'. Also included here are copies of the faxes sent from the Mathematics Department in July 1998 announcing Lighthill's death.

Section H, Publications, presents a chronological sequence of drafts and related material for Lighthill's publications, 1956-c.1998, and an incomplete set of his offprints, 1944-1998.

Section J, Lectures, presents a chronological sequence of drafts and related material for Lighthill's public and invitation lectures, 1954-1997, though a folder of '(Early) Public Lectures' contained almost all undated material. At the end of the chronological sequence is further undated material including transparencies and drawings for slides, and the draft of a radio broadcast by Lighthill, the only one in the collection.

Section K, Societies and organisations, is by far the largest in the collection. Lighthill's association with 16 British and international organisations is documented for the period 1962-1998. The largest body of material relates to the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) 1983-1998, and in particular the Special Committee on the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (SCIDNDR) which Lighthill chaired from its first meeting in 1990 until 1 July 1995. Other major international commitments, which are well-documented, include the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (IUTAM), 1966-1994, and the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI), 1969-1984. In Britain Lighthill's most extensively documented commitment was the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, 1962-1992, including early papers relating to the Institute's founding and Lighthill's term as its first President. Also of interest are records of the Culham Laboratory Review Panel which the UK Atomic Energy Authority asked to review the programme on plasma physics and fusion research and to make recommendations, 1966-1967, and Lighthill's review of the field of artificial intelligence for the Science Research Council, 1971-1972.

Section L, Visits and conferences, documents a number of conferences and visits made during the period 1965-1998. Material may include correspondence about arrangements and arising (letters of thanks, publication of proceedings, continuing contacts with scientific colleagues), abstracts, programmes, lists of participants, drafts of Lighthill's presentations, etc. Particularly well-documented are a Royal Aeronautical Society symposium on cheap short-range air transport in 1965, a visit to the USSR in 1965 (including Novosibirsk), a symposium on swimming and flying in nature at CalTech in 1974, visit to China in 1987 and an international workshop on tropical cyclones in Mexico in 1993. Many meetings relating to Lighthill's ICSU and IUTAM commitments are documented in Section K.

Section M, Correspondence, is extensive, comprising a number of alphabetically and chronologically organised series: general correspondence (alphabetical) covering the period 1969-1992 (letters A-O only); general correspondence (chronological) covering the period 1974-1998; and copies of outgoing correspondence (alphabetical) covering the period 1992-1998. Additionally, there are a small number of miscellaneous files of correspondence with individuals including one relating to the support of the Newton scholar D.T. Whiteside in the period 1968-1971. There is also an extensive alphabetical series of reference material covering the period 1972-1992 (letters A-R only).

Section N, Non-textual material, comprises photographs, photographic slides and audiotapes. There are photographs of Lighthill from the period of his Directorship of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough to the end of his life; and photographs relating to research and a lecture in the early 1950s. Photographic slides are undated. Topics include biomechanics of hearing and 'flagella + Goldstein Lecture'. The audiotapes are sound recordings of four lectures by Lighthill on mathematical biofluiddynamics.

Administrative / Biographical History

Michael James Lighthill was born in Paris on 23 January 1924 and educated at Winchester and Trinity College Cambridge where he took a two-year wartime BA, 1941-1943. For the rest of the war he worked on supersonic flight at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, in the aerodynamics division under Sydney Goldstein, publishing his first scientific paper before he was 20. Immediately after the war he was appointed senior lecturer in mathematics at Manchester under Goldstein and in 1950, still only 26, he was appointed to the Beyer Professorship of Applied Mathematics in succession to Goldstein, a position he held until 1959. Lighthill was successively Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, 1959-1964, Royal Society Research Professor at Imperial College London, 1964-1969, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, 1969-1979, and Provost of University College London, 1979-1989.

Lighthill is acknowledged as one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century. He is characterised by his obituarist D.G. Crighton (Independent, 22 July 1998) as 'the prototypical applied mathematician, immersing himself thoroughly in the essence and even the detail of every engineering, physical or biological problem he was seeking to illuminate with mathematical description, formulating a sequence of clear mathematical problems and then attacking them with a formidable range of techniques completely mastered, or adapted to the particular need, or newly created for the purpose; and then finally returning to the original problem with understanding, predictions, and advice for action'. This biographical account follows Crighton's obituary closely.

At Manchester Lighthill led a powerful and inventive fluid dynamics group. He had many PhD students there and during one period 17 of his former Manchester students held chairs in the UK. He worked extensively on gas dynamics, including effects important at very high speed, in his studies of ionisation processes, and the diffraction of shock and blast waves. He also launched two new fields in fluid mechanics. The first of these was aeroacoustics or sound generated aerodynamically. It was announced in a paper published by the Royal Society in 1952 and had an immediate implication for noise reduction in jet aeroengines. The second was nonlinear acoustics which Lighthill introduced in a 100-page article written in 1956 in honour of the seventieth birthday of G.I. Taylor. Its applications include kidney-stone-crushing lithotripsy machines and, with the same mathematics, flood waves in rivers and traffic flow on highways.

At the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough Lighthill was responsible for the management of an organisation with 8,000 staff including 1400 scientists and engineers. His detailed oversight included the critical examination of every report emanating from the Establishment. He worked on the aerodynamics of the slender delta wings for Concorde, on spacecraft, and on short-haul aircraft. In the early 1960s he forged links with the Post Office to develop the commercial use of television and communications satellites. At Imperial College London he began his development of mathematical biofluiddynamics: the quantitative understanding of the flow of blood in mammalian cardiovascular systems, of air in the human airways, and of the flying of birds and insects and the swimming of fish.

At Cambridge he undertook major teaching commitments and expanded still further his range of research interests: control systems; active control of sound; waves; oceanography and atmospheric dynamics, including monsoon prediction and propagation; and on biological mechanics at the microscopic level. At University College London he was involved in much fundraising, in new College developments especially in biology and biotechnology and in expanding the representation of women at senior levels; while continuing his scientific interests: the unpredictability of large systems; wave energy extraction devices; and the human auditory system.

In addition to the offices he held and his own scientific research Lighthill undertook many advisory and leadership roles in respect of public and professional bodies in Britain and internationally. Unhappy with the support in national societies for applied mathematics he founded the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, serving as its first President, 1965-1967. He took a serious interest in mathematical education at all levels, elected as President of the Mathematical Association in 1970 and serving as President of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction, 1971-1974.

One of his more controversial assignments was initiated in September 1971, when the Chairman of the Science Research Council, B.H. Flowers, asked 'whether he would be prepared to make a considered appreciation of the subject of artificial intelligence, its achievements, its practitioners, its promise and its needs' as an aid to policy formulation. The International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics was a major commitment and he served as President of the Union, 1984-1988. After retirement he took up the Chairmanship of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) Special Committee on the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (SC-IDNDR), and travelled and lectured worldwide.

Lighthill's achievements were widely recognised. He was elected FRS in 1953 (Royal Medal 1964, Copley Medal 1998; Bakerian Lecture 1961, Humphrey Davy Lecture 1991), and was knighted in 1971. He received many honorary degrees, prizes and medals and was elected to the foreign membership of leading academies.

In 1945 he married Nancy Dumaresq with whom he had a son and four daughters. He died on 17 July 1998 while swimming in the Channel Islands.

Access Information


The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material, after the completion of a Reader's Undertaking.

Acquisition Information

Received from the Department of Mathematics at UCL in 2008.

Other Finding Aids

A hard copy catalogue of this collection including an index of correspondents is available on request. This is currently being added to the online catalogue. Please contact Special Collections for further information.