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Joseph Langley Burchnall

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Whichford (8 km N of Chipping Norton), Warwickshire, England


Durham, England

Joseph Burchnall was educated at Boston Grammar School from where he won a scholarship to read mathematics at Oxford in 1911. He graduated in 1914.

Burchnall joined the army in 1914 serving in France and Belgium and eventually was wounded and lost a leg in 1918. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. In fact it is fair to say that not only did he show bravery under military action, but also great bravery with his disability. Nothing seemed more difficult for him and during his whole career he was never heard to complain (or even mention) his disability.

Appointed to Durham in 1919 he remained there for the rest of his career. From 1939 he occupied the chair of mathematics at Durham, a position he was to hold for 20 years. He served the university in many major administrative capacities, on Court, Senate and almost all major committees.

Almost half of Burchnall's mathematical papers were written with T W Chaundy, with whom he collaborated for 20 years. In both the joint papers and his single author papers he wrote on differential equations , hypergeometric functions and Bessel functions. Formal properties of differential operators are studied in many of his contributions, in particular in his early papers he worked on commuting differential operators.

In 1956 he was awarded the O.B.E. "for services to education and the community". His personality is nicely summed up in where his role as President of the Staff Cricket team is recounted:

Indeed his behaviour in that office was a cameo of his personality - he stood alertly as umpire for hours in spite of his disability - he granted appeals against the University secretary and the Chief Constable apparently with identical equanimity - and smiled a little at the efforts of an ageing team to keep pace with undergraduates, but it was the whimsical smile of a man who had the world in perspective - he knew what was happening, just as he knew what he wanted to happen to the University.

W S Angus writes :

His characteristic caution was leavened by perseverance and faith. His humour grew less sardonic and his essential kindliness more manifest as his years advanced and so much that he had worked for came into reality.

Source:School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland