Royal life of the president

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Dr Mary Bradburn made a successful career doing something her headmistress said she shouldn't. Pam Cooley reports. But girls don't do mathematics!" said the horrified headmistress of the high school in Middlesborough 60 years ago when Dr Mary Bradburn, president of the Mathematical Association, told her what she wanted to do in the sixth form.

Brought up in North Yorkshire, Mary had received a good grounding in the subject at the village school she attended until she was 14: "You learned arithmetic with a vengeance. I knew all about stocks and shares because it was part of our arithmetic lessons and there was none of this nonsense that you must be with your own age group. If you were brighter than the rest of the class you were moved up. I was in the top form before I was 11." The high school did, however, make arrangements for Mary to attend another school for mathematics lessons. "After that I didn't look back," she says.

Her Scottish mother had imbued her daughters with the idea that a university education was something to aim for, and after Higher School Certificate, Mary Bradburn was awarded a state scholarship - one of only 150 for the whole country. At just turned 17, she was too young to try for Cambridge or Oxford; so, rather than wait, she took the London University entrance exam. Getting an exhibition to the Royal Holloway College in Surrey she began her long and distinguished connection with the college, first as a student and then as a member of staff from 1945-1980.

Royal Holloway was a women's college until 1965 when men were admitted. Mary Bradburn recalls it as ". . . a closed little society. We lived a very disciplined life. I remember, you couldn't go out after 7pm without a permit. Everybody thinks how awful it must have been to live under that regime but I went to the theatre and did mad things in London many, many times. It was simple, you planned beforehand and got permission."

With a burst of infectious laughter she adds: "Of course, I knew all the ways round the rules. When I came to be a member of the staff I knew more about ways of getting back into the college than the students!" She eventually went to Edinburgh University to do her PhD, then on to teach mathematics to engineering students at Dundee University. It was, she says, a very good training: "Scottish university students have a long tradition of taking the mickey out of their teachers. The only comparable ones I've met were in Australia when I went there for a year in l961." Her delight in describing how she outwitted their tricks leaves no doubt as to who got the best of these encounters.

One of her ex-students at Royal Holloway recalls how lucid her lectures were, how she took part in the community life, playing the cello in the student orchestra, and how, while upholding the authority of the college, she always had an underlying sympathy with the students. While she welcomed the admission of men to the college in 1965, she was very concerned that some female students were intimidated by the aggressive approach of some male students, encouraged in tutorials by one or two of her male colleagues, who, she says "completely lacked any idea of how the female mind works".

The humorous exasperation, veined with downright indignation, with which Dr Bradburn views the education establishment and some educational reforms, dates perhaps from the time in the Seventies when she examined students in teacher training colleges whose certificates were validated by London University. She still regards it as unforgiveable that account had not been taken by the authorities of the effect on schools and training colleges of the sudden dive in the birthrate in the 1960s, an omission which seriously undermined the quality of teacher training.

There was also the time when so-called "new maths" was all the rage. A teacher remembers how, as a young man, he enthused to Dr Bradburn about this: "She just said why didn't I teach something useful like calculating how many rolls of wallpaper were needed to decorate a room? . . . I tried that later and realised how much more sophisticated it was."

Dr Bradburn joined the Mathematical Association when she began her university teaching career in the 1940s. The oldest of the subject associations, the MA had been formed for people who were teaching able mathematicians, and the very ablest mathematicians themselves belonged to it. However, while interest was initially centred on secondary maths, the association has been concerned for many years with all the major changes in education and the structure of schools, producing a wide range of teaching aids, particularly for the primary sector. It provides a forum for all those interested in improvlng the teaching of mathematics.

Dr Bradburn took an active role both in the Thames Valley branch of the association and nationally, including the organisation of a very popular annual conference at Royal Holloway College. When she retired from the college as senior lecturer in 1980, aged 61, she was asked to take on the job of chairing the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the MA. "I took this fairly seriously," she says. A colleague remarks that she more or less ran the whole show for six years.

Dr Bradburn's term as president comes to an end in April, but her involvement with the MA goes on. To mark the centenary next year of the Mathematical Gazette, the main publication of the association, she is researching an article about the very many distinguished mathematicians who have been its president. Few can have been as dedicated, or been held in such affection, as Dr Mary Bradburn.

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