Few stories are as compelling as that of a man who begins as a boy prodigy, only to see his life turn into a living hell. The year is 1931, and at the tender age of 14, this man, who we will call Max, wins the coveted Mathematical Contest and Bank Holiday Junior Schemes offered by the prestigious Harrod’s Bank. Max is understandably over the moon, and is determined to make the most of this opportunity. He applies to, and is accepted into, Cambridge University where he studies Mathematics.
Now, imagine how differently Max’s life would play out if he had listened to his mother and gone to college in America instead of UK. He would have been accepted and attended either Harvard or Yale. He might have become a doctor or an engineer, and his life would have been very different. But his choice was to stay in the UK and study Math, which made him extraordinarily fortunate. It also put him on the road to disaster. There is no getting around the fact that Max’s academic career would have been much more promising had he stayed in the United States. The world of Mathematics in the US is much more open to students of color, and women. But Max, like many brilliant young men of his time, was blinded by a desire to prove himself and succeed against all odds. He set his mind to studying, and became one of the best students Cambridge ever had.
When World War II started, Max was among the first to leave Cambridge and enlist in the army. He continued his studies at Oxford, where he had been accepted on a rugby scholarship. Max was by now an expert on ballistics, which got him a job working on the pro-rata calculation for the British war effort. This was a vital job because it involved using Math to simulate the firing of artillery at tanks and ships. Max was meticulous and hardworking, which is perhaps why the ballistics team at Bletchley Park dubbed him ‘The Prima Donna of the Deviation Analysis Department’.
Max’s work at Bletchley was crucial to the war effort, but it was a dangerous job and many of his colleagues died from overwork. After the war, Max went on to work for a government agency helping to regulate financial markets. It was here that he developed an interest in game theory and applied Math to economics. While he didn’t lose his job due to being a man, the economy of the time was not as benevolent as it is today and he was forced to take a significant pay cut.
Around this time, an opportunity arose for Max to become the personal assistant to a member of parliament. He used the position to further his career, learning how to navigate Westminster and get his point across. He also met and married a woman named Sally, who was a fellow student and worked for the London School of Economics. The two set up home in a large house in the country where they entertained friends and family with wild parties. On Sundays, they would walk their dogs and go to church together.
By 1951, Max and Sally had a baby daughter, Rachel. Despite his responsibilities as a father and a husband, Max continued to work long hours in order to further his career. He became increasingly unhappy, and in an effort to make his life less stressful, the family went on a long holiday to Germany. While there, Max attended a lecture given by a Dr. Werner Kellermann. The subject was a form of therapy called ‘Countershock Therapy’ and Dr. Kellermann suggested that Max try it. While Max found the idea of shocks therapy somewhat intriguing, he wasn’t sure how to go about it. So he did what any intelligent person would do, he looked it up online. There were many references to the procedure, and Max found one that seemed to offer the best advice. He decided to give it a try and, as fate would have it, he was actually suffering from acute anxiety, which Dr. Kellermann said could be treated using electroshock therapy. While in hospital, Max was connected to various machines that administered electric shocks to his chest and limbs, which he found deeply unsettling. When he got back home, the family set up a bedroom for the electroshock therapy machine and its odd bedside companion, a talking bird. Max dubbed these two items ‘The Thunderbirds’, and for the rest of his life he was never comfortable being in the same room as them. Despite the stressors of his job and family life, this experience was a turning point for Max. He began to look at his life differently, and saw the need for change. He knew that he had to somehow make up for the fact that he hadn’t done his university degree, and he decided to go back to Cambridge and get his PhD. Even though he had lost a couple of years of his life, he knew that this was the best way to make up for it. And he wasn’t the only one. His decision to go back to school, and do something about his situation, spurred a number of his friends to follow suit. Not all of them had a family to support, and many were burdened with student debt. Nonetheless, they all saw the advantages of a university education, and they also knew that it was something that they couldn’t afford if they stayed in school, so they dropped out and then repaid the debt, using whatever savings they had to pay for their living expenses. They understood the value of a degree, even if it took them a while to find a job that paid enough to support them and repay the debt. With a degree, they knew they would have some recourse in case their job hunt wasn’t fruitful. Most importantly, they understood that a university degree was a passport to the middle class, which was the social strata to which they aspired.
Once Max’s anxiety problem was under control, he looked for a way to make up for the time he’d lost, and began to study for the Cambridge entrance exam, which he passed with distinction. This was an important milestone for Max because it meant that he could begin to rebuild his life and put the events of the past behind him. He got a job at a university, which was a far cry from the man behind the counter at Harrod’s Bank, and enrolled in a postgraduate course in mathematical statistics. This was another opportunity for Max to demonstrate what he was made of, and he excelled in both the theory and practice of his studies. He also found a mentor in John Tukey, an expert in data analysis who took an interest in Max and helped to further his career. In 1957, Max was offered a lectureship at Brown University in the United States, and although it was a great career move, he decided to turn it down because of the toll the move would take on his family. He was worried that his wife and child would not be able to adjust to the strange new surroundings, and that Sally would be overwhelmed by the situation.
Instead, he went to work for the English Department at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, which was a state university at the time. The move was a bit of a leapfrog, as the state at that time was still largely reliant on primary industry, which meant that there was plenty of work to be done. Max got on with the job and began to make a name for himself in his field. It wasn’t an easy task, as the bulk of his workday involved pedagogically advising undergraduates and conducting research. Despite this, he somehow found the time to coach the Australian university teams that won both the Davis Cup and the W.I.L.D.A. (Women’s International Lacrosse League). During his time at Adelaide, Max also began to work on his autobiography. He wanted to include everything in it, from his early years through to the present, and he began to plot out the structure of his book. The result was A Self-Made Man, which he published in 1969. The book was aptly named, as it covered every aspect of Max’s life and included plenty of examples of his tenacity and sheer determination.
Throughout his life, Max had been driven by a burning desire to succeed and make something of himself. He saw academics, in all shapes and forms, as his route to the top and he devoted himself selflessly to his studies. While he had his setbacks, which came when he was younger and lacked the experience that comes with age, he never gave up and, as a result, achieved far more than most men could ever dream of. Had he not gone back to university, and had he not continued with his studies, he might well have ended up a forgotten cog in some large corporation or government agency. But, instead, he went on to become a world-class mathematician, winning the acclaim of his peers and the adoration of those who know and love him. His mathematical genius and ability to work tirelessly are an example to us all, and will live on, long after his untimely death in 2018.