Obituary: Professor Murray MacBeath, mathematician and wartime codebreaker

Prof Murray MacBeath: Mathematics professor, Bletchley Park codebreaker and enthusiastic Highland dancer who was friends with Albert Einstein
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Born: 30 June, 1923, in Glasgow. Died: 14 May, 2014 in Warwick, aged 90

Murray Macbeath, who rose to the most senior academic positions in mathematics after cracking wartime Japanese codes at Bletchley Park and befriending Albert Einstein along the way, has died. He was 90.

When he arrived at Dundee University he was one of the youngest chairs in mathematics. His published work, Elementary Vector Algebra, became a set text for schools and universities across the country and is still widely read today.

He got to know Einstein when the legendary theoretical physicist was emeritus professor at Princeton, where Gaelic-speaking Macbeath was undertaking his PhD and simultaneously generating an interest in all things Scottish among his fellow postgraduates.

During the Second World War, he was hand-picked to join the team of code-breakers at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, where he became fluent in Japanese in order to crack that country’s military codes.

A man of considerable wisdom and formidable intellect, he had a well- developed sense of humour and fun. Speaking of the sweltering heat generated by the giant and primitive Colossus computer at Bletchley Park, he once joked: “This caused the young ladies to be often scantily dressed.”

He would often think nothing of cycling 100 miles in a round trip and running marathons at the age of 60, when he could have been putting his feet up.

The son of Highlanders and eldest of four children, Alexander Murray Macbeath (always known as Murray) was born in Glasgow in 1923. From the age of three, he was raised in Belfast where his father Alec was professor of logic and metaphysics at Queen’s University, and where he himself gained a BA (Hons).

He gained an MA (Hons) from Clare College, Cambridge, after the war, followed by a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to Princeton University for his PhD, where John Nash, immortalised in the film A Beautiful Mind, was one of his contemporaries.

Macbeath became an early pioneer of the gap year during this time, travelling around the United States by car with two friends before returning to the UK and Clare College, as a senior fellow. There he met his wife Julie, at the Cambridge Strathspey and Reel Club. They went on to enjoy, in her words, “62 very happy, dancing years”.

He took his first academic post as a lecturer at Keele University, before being awarded the chair of mathematics at the University of Dundee at an unusually young age. In 1963, he became professor of mathematics at Birmingham University, where he stayed until 1979.

Macbeath took another gap year in 1966; this time a sabbatical to California Institute of Technology at Pasadena. His family accompanied him and enjoyed the adventure of driving across the US from west to east at the end of their stay. Highlights included campsite tornados in Wyoming and returning to the UK on one of the last voyages of the Queen Mary.

He was widely admired by his students as an inspirational lecturer and tutor, with the rare ability to convey complex subject matter clearly and concisely. A keen athlete, he would regularly swim, work out at the gym and cycle to Birmingham University, often accompanied by his son Ian, who was at school nearby, as well as undertaking jaunts of over 100 miles with his other son Peter, a keen racing cyclist.

In 1979, he moved back to the US to take the chair of mathematics at Pittsburgh University. While they were there, he and his wife made many lifelong friends at the Scottish Country Dance Society, participating regularly in demonstrations and competitions. He also found sufficient energy to run the Pittsburgh Marathon, aged 60.

He retired to Tayport, Fife, in 1990, and latterly Wellesbourne in Warwickshire. But the lure of his calling proved too strong and he retained an office at Warwick University, where he was emeritus professor of mathematics.

He attended academic conferences well into his 80s and enjoyed toasting the haggis with a good single malt on Burns Night, resplendent in full Highland dress at Lighthorne village hall. He and his wife were enthusiastic dancers and often led the less nimble-footed villagers around the hall.

Noel Hunter, his friend from that time, recalled advertising the inaugural meeting of the Lighthorne Caledonian Society and the first Burns Supper ever held in the village. “Far from showing any affront to this Sassenach impertinence, Murray embraced the idea and he even loaned me a kilt,” he said.

“He became president of the fledgling Lighthorne Caledonian Society and presided over all of our Burns suppers since 1995, including in January this year.

“At the end of our first Burns Night, he came to me and said, with a serious expression, ‘I’ve been to Burns Nights all over the world but this is the best I’ve ever been to.’ I was much relieved, but Julie informed me that the previous one they attended was in Buffalo, USA, held in temperance conditions and the haggis was toasted in tomato juice. Murray had not been amused, so we didn’t have much to beat.”

His high spirits never dampened in later life, despite suffering two strokes. Bored with the hospital’s strict no alcohol policy, he sneaked out one evening in pyjamas and dressing gown to avail himself, as he later confessed, of a “wee dram”.

Unable to find a pub within walking distance, he had to settle for an off-licence. Astonished nursing staff later confiscated the can of beer he was sharing with a patient in the same ward. He also entertained staff and patients by singing rousing renditions of The Mountains of Mourne, Molly Malone and Waltzing Matilda.

He celebrated his 90th birthday, despite his frailty, flying birds of prey at the Cotswold Falconry Centre before travelling 400 miles by car to attend the memorial service for his sister, Catriona, last September.

Here, he re-established contact with his cousin Frank after a gap of many years, and the two remained in close contact until Frank’s death, a few weeks before his own.

Murray Macbeath is survived by his wife of 62 years, Julie, and sons Ian and Peter.

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