Agnes Scott College

Lorna Mary Swain

March 22, 1891 - May 8, 1936

Written by M. D. Kennedy

Reprinted from the Journal of the London Mathematics Society, Volume 12 (1937), p155-157, with the permission of the London Mathematical Society.

Lorna Mary Swain was born on 22 March, 1891 at Hampstead and died on 8 May, 1936, after an illness which, though of long standing, had not prevented her from carrying out the duties of University Lecturer at Cambridge and Director of Mathematical Studies at Newnham College until within a few weeks of her death.

Lorna Swain was educated at South Hampstead High School and came to Newnham College with a Scholarship in 1910. She was a Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos, Part II, in 1913 and satisfied the examiners in Schedule B. While she was still in her fourth year she was offered the post of Assistant Lecturer in her College, with the recommendation that she should spend a year abroad before taking it up. She went to Göttingen, but was forced to leave in the greatest haste upon the outbreak of war shortly afterwards. She reached England, but her books and papers remained interned for several years.

While working for the Tripos she had been coached by Mr. G. Birtwistle, who inspired in her an interest in fluid motion which lasted all her life. This interest next took her to Manchester, where she worked for a time under Prof. Lamb and in collaboration with him published her first paper. It was a detailed analysis of a tidal problem designed to illustrate the effect of boundaries in producing phase differences between the vibrations and the tide generating force, and appeared in the Philosophical Magazine (6), 29 (1915), 737-744.

She returned to Newnham College as lecturer in 1915, but her next papers date from a year (1917-18) during which she was engaged at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the investigation of practical problems of elasticity with reference to aircraft. They deal with vibration speeds in airscrew blades and attempt a practical estimate of the effect of centrifugal force. With Mr. H.A. Webb she wrote an official memorandum on this subject which was published in the Reports and Memoranda of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1919), and later she published in the Philosophical Magazine (6), 41 (1921), 259-266, an application of Rayleigh's method to the case of a blade in the shape of a truncated wedge.

In 1920, Lorna Swain was appointed Director of Studies at Newnham College on Miss A. B. Collier's retirement. Thenceforward her time was naturally much occupied with teaching and College business. But she retained her interest in fluid motion and its problems. In the Proceedings of the Royal Society, 102 (1923), 766-778, will be found a paper which she published with Mr. A. Berry on slow motion through a viscous fluid.

A vacation year in 1928-29 enabled her to visit Göttingen once more and to write a paper "On the turbulent wake behind a body of revolution," which appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, 125 (1929), 647-659. The two-dimensional flow in the wake behind a cylindrical body had been worked out by Dr. Schlichting, using Prandtl's momentum transfer and mixture-length theory of turbulent motion....Lorna Swain used a similar theory to calculate the flow in the wake behind a symmetrical body and obtained first and second approximations to the velocity distribution at a considerable distance downstream.

Lorna Swain's contribution to the advancement of mathematical learning cannot be assessed merely on the basis of a review of her published work. It was one of her guiding principles to do everything she could to encourage the study of mathematics not only in her own College but generally among women. For this reason she was an active member of the Mathematical Association and served on their Committee to investigate the teaching of applied mathematics. The same thought governed her choice of students in the College entrance examination. She felt that school work could foster or spoil a gift for mathematics and that it was of the first importance that girls should have good teaching. Her own work, she thought, could contribute to the supply by admitting to the College only students of clear and undoubted capacity to work for the Mathematical Tripos. This meant that she had to arrange courses for people of widely differing gifts, and all her students know how carefully she arranged the work for each individual, giving extra help herself whenever she thought it necessary. The success of her policy may be judged by the fact that her students frequently did better in Part II than in Part I of the Tripos, and by the number, which is not small, of students who have entered the College not well prepared and are now sending up pupils of their own ready to profit fully by a Cambridge course.

But there is more than this. Lorna Swain, unassuming, reserved in manner, often silent, was a singularly faithful friend. Her former pupils were sure of her interest and encouragement in their careers, of a warm and sincere welcome when they visited her, of prompt and valuable advice when they consulted her. She played this part as if it was the inevitable consequence of her position and would have been astonished to know how greatly it was valued. But in fact she was in touch in this way with much of the work that is done in mathematics in girls' schools all over the country. Her unobtrusive influence has certainly not been without result.

A different field was opened to her when she became a University Lecturer in 1926. She lectured regularly on hydromechanics and on dynamics and took her share of examination work. Lecturing never made her seem nervous or anxious. She was always ready to speak on a subject she knew to be within her province.

Her wisdom and influence were increasing, her powers of mind were still expanding, when she was overtaken by illness and death. It would be idle to guess what more she might have done if she had lived; it is certain that she contributed worthily to mathematical education and to mathematical thought.


  1. Author Profile at zbMath
  2. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive