Professor David Crighton

An obituary by Stephen Hawking

David Crighton was born in 1942 in Llandudno, where his parents had gone to escape the German bombing. For similar reasons I was born, in the same year, in Oxford. We grew up within 10 miles of each other but didn't meet at this time, at least not to my knowledge.

He attended Watford Grammar School and did A levels in Double Mathematics and Physics, having switched from Classics. I was at the nearby St Alban's School, where I would have liked to have done the same A levels, but my father insisted I do Chemistry instead of the second mathematics because there wouldn't be any jobs for mathematicians. Crighton went to St John's College, Cambridge, and I went to University College, Oxford. He was still in Cambridge when I came to Trinity Hall to do a PhD but again we didn't meet.

He decided against staying in Cambridge to do research and instead took a lecturer position at Woolwich Polytechnic (now part of the University of Greenwich). He obviously didn't find teaching basic mathematics to evening classes stimulating enough because he soon took a research assistant position with John Ffowcs Williams at Imperial College, at a quarter of his salary as a Senior Lecturer at Woolwich. He obtained a PhD in Mathematics, on the subject of Aeronautical Acoustics, at Imperial in 1969 and stayed there until he was made a research associate in the Engineering Department at Cambridge in 1974.

Again we might have met but I was away from Cambridge in Cal Tech that year and he visited Cambridge only once before he was suddenly elevated to Professor of Applied Mathematics at Leeds (I had a similar sudden elevation to Reader at Cambridge that year). He transformed the rather run-down department in Leeds into one of the best in the country. He returned to Cambridge in 1986 to the chair vacated by the retirement of George Batchelor who had been the prime mover behind the establishment of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) and who had been its head for 24 years.

David Crighton became head of department in 1991 and it was only then that our parallel paths converged and I got to know him. He was determined to maintain and improve the position of DAMTP as the best applied mathematics department in Britain and one of the leaders on the world scene. This implied a continued growth beyond the capabilities of the centrally located but rather dilapidated old printing works in which the department's founder had placed it.

With only limited government and university funding available, most of the money had to be raised from other sources and I was able to help with this. We visited the White House together at the height of the storm over Monica Lewinsky but we concentrated on encouraging potential donors, in which we were very successful. A splendid new Centre for Mathematical Studies is under construction in Cambridge and will be a lasting memorial to him.

David was particularly helpful to me with my disability which means I require special assistance, but he was like that with everyone. When a colleague of mine arrived to an empty university flat on a freezing New Year's Day, he phoned David, who came round with blankets and hot soup. He made us all feel he had our best interest at heart.

David and I both had major surgery last year. Mine was successful but his wasn't and he knew he only had limited time left. Nevertheless he carried on with his duties as head of department and Master of Jesus College. Only 36 hours before his death we were discussing physics together. This is the way he would have wanted to go. We both loved Wagner and I passed on to him tickets for Meistersinger at Covent Garden in May which I couldn't use because I was going to be away. I had hoped that setting him this goal would keep him going a bit longer.

Stephen Hawking