Serendipity at Work

While exchanging origins with a friend recently, I happened to remark that it was because of Hitler that I happened to be in Brisbane. I had to clarify immediately that I was no follower of the Fuhrer, rather that circumstances were responsible, and my debt to Hitler is indirect.

Let me explain.

My birth was before the second World War in Hull, Yorkshire, England. This city is on the east coast of England, and after mid 1940 it was conveniently situated as a target for the Luftwaffe[1] from their airfields in the conquered Low Countries. Their bombing sent us to join my father who was in the Army in Leicester—somewhat removed from the coast. However, in November 1940 we were bombed more accurately than previously, and my father decided that his wife and three sons should all be sent to relatives in neutral Ireland. And so we slept without disturbance, thankfully, and I grew up in Ireland.

By February 1964, I found myself happily settled with my wife, daughter, and a lectureship at University College in Cork. I would probably still be in Cork now had not circumstances altered in the arrival of Professor Clive Davis that month. Clive was Head of Department of Mathematics at the University of Queensland, and I was asked to accommodate him for a few nights during his visit to Cork by an Australian colleague on our staff. This I was happy to do. Clive and I had lengthy discussions over the three nights until about two in the morning, with suitable support from the wine of the country. The next day Clive gave a most beautiful mathematical talk on the blackboard to the local mathematicians without noticeable shaking of the hand. This gave me a most favourable impression of Australia! It turned out that Clive was on a recruiting trip to Britain and Ireland, and I was very pleased to be invited to visit his Department for a year. This turned out successfully for my family and myself, and we returned to Cork in mid 1965.  I was later offered a tenured position in Clive’s Department which I accepted after much domestic discussion. I served another 28 years—with eleven years as Head of Department—until my retirement in 1995.

I was very fortunate to enter the Mathematics Department at the end of the 1960s, when the effect of the Martin and Murray reports was being felt, and universities were expanding at a considerable rate. It was a pleasure to be able to design new courses, interview prospective staff members, and to meet many new able students. Our academic staff in Mathematics expanded from 15 in 1964 to a maximum of about 50 in the mid 1970s. In addition to this we had secretarial, administrative and programming staff. We were also well accommodated in the Priestley building which had just been completed in early 1994.

The student unrest across the world of the late 1960s also of course had its effect on our campus. A Departmental Consultative Committee was set up in our department to give voice to staff and student opinion, and this led to some lengthy sessions, some not entirely free from acrimony, as established norms were tested. Amazingly, the new order led to the appointment of our first non-professorial Head, Brian Adkins, in 1972. He was succeeded by Professor Steve Lipton in 1980, and then by me, as a Reader, now Associate Professor, in 1985. The Headship of a Department of mathematicians is not a sinecure. All are professionals in their own area, and any new direction must be argued for with completeness before acquiescence can be expected. Certainly an interesting learning process for all concerned!

So adverse circumstances turned out well eventually, and my family and I have enjoyed our lengthy stay, over fifty years, in Australia very well indeed.

Note: My last posthumous contact with Clive Davis came unexpectedly on 17th May 2017, when I received from his daughter, Dinah Gaffney, a number of Clive’s books, all quite old, and some look to be valuable classics. They will be offered for sale at Alumni Friends’ Book Fair. This is a memorable parting gift from a remarkable man with whom I was privileged to be associated.


[1] Luftwaffe was the WWII German Airforce.


Vincent Hart,
Bachelor of Science (Hons I), Master of Science (Hons I), Doctor of Philosophy, National University of Ireland,