Obituary: H. Martyn Cundy ; Inspirational Teacher Behind the School Mathematics Project

Article excerpt

THE SCHOOL Mathematics Project, which radically changed the course of mathematics teaching in Britain, had its origins in an Oxford conference of 1959 and another held two years later in Southampton, but its impetus came from a meeting between four men in a Winchester garden in September 1961. They were H. Martyn Cundy, Tom Jones, Douglas Quadling and Professor (later Sir) Bryan Thwaites.

Eight schools led the way over the next 12 months in which SMP was established - Sherborne School (where Cundy was Senior Mathematics Master), Winchester College (where Jones served in the same capacity, and Thwaites had taught until 1959), Marlborough College (where Quadling was Senior Mathematics Master), Battersea Grammar School, Charterhouse, Exeter School, Holloway School and Winchester County School for Girls. Thwaites, Professor of Theoretical Mechanics at Southampton University, was the SMP's founding Director.

Martyn Cundy was both a remarkable teacher and person. This became apparent to me in 1962, when, as editor of SMP, I began to visit the eight founding schools. On one day of my visit to Sherborne, Cundy had no school commitments and we spent the day walking in south Dorset. It was one of the most invigorating and intellectually enjoyable days I have ever had. I realised that I was in the company of someone quite outstanding, with knowledge and interests extending far beyond mathematics, and who, within mathematics, possessed an enviable ability to structure and make connections between various topics and to communicate his thoughts with great fluency and clarity.

Henry Martyn Cundy was born in Derby in 1913, and named after Henry Martyn, the 19th-century divine and missionary, from whose half-brother he was descended. Henry Martyn was not only distinguished as a theologian, but also had been Senior Wrangler in Mathematics at Cambridge in 1801 and, when Chaplain to the East India Company, had translated the New Testament into Urdu and Persian. Martyn Cundy was, it transpired, to have more in common with him than merely his Christian names.

Cundy's father was an evangelical clergyman in the Church of England who believed in not staying too long in any one parish. This meant that Martyn was continually on the move as a boy, before going to Monkton Combe School in 1927 as a boarder. He obtained Higher School Certificate distinctions in Mathematics, Divinity, Latin and Greek, but it was to read Mathematics rather than Classics that he went up as a scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1932. There he obtained a first class degree, began research work in quantum theory, won a Rayleigh prize in 1937, and was awarded a PhD in 1938.

Having demonstrated such academic ability Cundy might have been expected to find a post within a university, but he opted to teach and moved to Sherborne, where he remained until 1966. While at Cambridge, he had met Kittie Hemmings, another mathematics student and later teacher, and they married in 1939.

It was the publication, with A.P. Rollett, of the book Mathematical Models, that first brought Cundy's name to the attention of mathematics teachers. First published in 1951, it is, remarkably, still in print. A teacher in Northern Ireland, reviewing it for Amazon in 2000, describes it as "a masterpiece, a jewel . . . A mathematician's playground and a mathematics teacher's dream!"

Cundy's writing for schools was to become even more influential through his work for the School Mathematics Project. SMP's treatment of geometry in its first trial texts, an attempt to move away from diluted Euclid to "transformation geometry", was neither successful in the classroom nor liked. It contained many valuable ideas, but lacked coherence and clear mathematical goals (criticisms equally valid of geometry in today's National Curriculum). …