Henry Richard Dowson (1964)

Harry Dowson

'You could easily make a big mistake about Harry. If you saw him wandering down the street you could conclude he was nobody special. It took time to appreciate his intelligence, integrity and quietly understated kindliness. Everyone had a soft spot for Harry, even colleagues who could not agree about anything else.’

- Dr Neil Dickson

Henry Dowson (1964), more commonly known as Harry, contributed much to mathematics through his academic work, and a great deal to his friends through the quiet warmth of his personality. His life demonstrates the transformative power of education when combined with talent and strength of character. Harry spent only a brief time at St John’s, but it was a period of his life he never forgot, and one that is commemorated by his extraordinarily generous gift to the College in his will.

Harry was born in 1939 in Newcastle upon Tyne to parents who were both in service; his father, Ridley, was a gardener and his mother, Frances, a lady’s maid. Harry was a bright child and gained a scholarship to the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, where he won prizes in mathematics and chemistry, ultimately gaining a Ministry of Education State Scholarship to King’s College, Newcastle, now Newcastle University. He was once again a prize-winning student, and gained a First in Mathematics with special honours in 1960. He stayed on for a PhD in Functional Analysis under the supervision of Dr John Ringrose, funded by a Government Research Studentship. When Dr Ringrose moved to Cambridge to take up a Fellowship at St John’s in 1961, Harry came with him and spent two years here before completing his PhD in 1964. This achievement is all the more remarkable given that during this time Harry contracted tuberculosis, and spent more than a term in Papworth Hospital.

After leaving Cambridge, Harry pursued a successful academic career, holding teaching posts in the Universities of Swansea, Newcastle and Illinois, before moving to the University of Glasgow, where he remained for the rest of his life, attaining a Readership in 1975. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1978, the same year in which he published his book, The Spectral Theory of Linear Operators, which has served as an essential reference on the subject ever since. His contribution to mathematics was significant, with 26 papers to his name. After taking early retirement in 1990, he continued his research, remaining a member of the University of Glasgow’s Department of Mathematics and a central figure on the editorial team of the Glasgow Mathematical Journal.

He made many friends at Glasgow and his former colleague, friend and executor, Neil Dickson, recalls Harry’s encouragement of more junior researchers and his generosity to newly arrived students from overseas. Harry led a simple, bachelor life, enjoying collecting coins and stamps and the pleasures of a good malt whisky. He also took a great deal of satisfaction in managing his investments and built a fortune out of a modest income, very little of which he spent on himself. Harry chose to leave the bulk of that fortune, nearly £1 million, to St John’s. The College clearly meant a great deal to him and he came back at regular intervals, most recently to the Alumni Weekend in 2007. In addition to his memories of a happy time at St John’s, there is perhaps another reason for his attachment. In his later years, Harry researched his family history and discovered that he was a member of a line of Johnians on his father’s side: the Featherstonhaughs. One of Harry’s ancestors, the Rev Henry Featherstonhaugh (1712), served as Foundress Fellow from 1717-1729, and it must have given Harry enormous pleasure to uncover this link and to know that his legacy would commemorate a Johnian family connection.

This quiet, unassuming man was at St John’s for a short and not untroubled time, and went on to achieve many other successes elsewhere. Nevertheless, he was immensely proud to have studied at St John’s. He is remembered with great affection by those who knew him, and by the College he loved so well.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr Neil Dickson and Professor John Ringrose FRS. The photograph is reproduced by kind permission of Dr Simon Wassermann.

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