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Room, Thomas Gerald (1902–1986)

by John Mack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Thomas Gerald Room (1902-1986), geometer and professor of mathematics, was born on 10 November 1902 at Camberwell, London, one of four children of Ernest William Room, manager of a limeworks, and his wife Emma Eliza, née Henry, schoolteacher.  At Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, Gerald won an exhibition to read for the mathematical tripos at St John’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1923; MA, 1927; D.Sc., 1955).  His distinguished performance earned him a research scholarship that enabled him to continue at St John’s, investigating topics in geometry.  In 1925 he won a Smith’s prize for an essay in mathematics.

Elected in 1925 to a fellowship at St John’s, Room initially took up a junior lectureship at the University of Liverpool in 1926 before returning to St John’s, where he stayed until 1929.  H. F. Baker, an algebraic geometer at Cambridge, influenced Room in determining his principal areas of research.  Room was a Cambridge University lecturer from 1928 until 1935, when he took up the chair of mathematics at the University of Sydney, succeeding H. S. Carslaw.

In Sydney the staff was small (five apart from Room), the students were drawn from a wide range of faculties and single–subject specialisation occurred only in the third year.  Room reorganised the course structure, added a fourth year for honours students and raised the level of mathematics required for entry into the higher-level course.  His book The Geometry of Determinantal Loci (1938)the culmination of fifteen years’ research—confirmed Room’s extraordinary scholarship.  As a result, in 1941 he was awarded the Sir Thomas Ranken Lyle medal and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London.

On 6 November 1937 at Wesley College Chapel, University of Sydney, Room married with Methodist forms Jessie Bannerman, a schoolteacher, whom he had met through the Sydney University Settlement and the Student Christian Movement.  Joan Freeman remembered Room from her student days, as 'a small, shy man of formal, very English manner, who gave the impression of having some difficulty in accommodating himself to the rougher Australian way of life, though he was eager to please'.

Early in 1940 the military intelligence authorities invited Room to establish an unofficial group at the university to develop expertise in cryptography and to learn Japanese.  By October the group, comprising Room, R. J. Lyons, A. D. Trendall and A. P. Treweek, had made progress in deciphering a Japanese code.  In August 1941 Room joined Eric Nave’s special signals intelligence unit in Melbourne.  Moving to the Central Bureau in Brisbane in November 1942, Room was in charge of a mainly American section responsible for breaking coded Japanese reports of weather conditions in locations targeted for air raids.  This work provided important operational information to the Allies.  It is likely that he also solved other cryptological problems at the request of the bureau’s American deputy-director Colonel Abraham Sinkov.  Released from his wartime activities in October 1945, Room returned to the university.  The Department of the Army recorded its appreciation of his valuable contribution to the war effort.

The mathematics department’s teaching load increased dramatically in the next decade as a result of the enrolment of ex-service personnel under the Commonwealth’s Reconstruction Training Scheme.  K. E. Bullen, professor of applied mathematics from 1946, wanted applied and pure mathematics separated, whereas Room believed that mathematics was by its nature a single discipline.  Their opposing views led to personal animosity.  A separate applied mathematics department was formed in 1951.  Earlier that year Room had applied for and was offered a professorship at the University of Belfast.  However, he decided to remain in Sydney (a decision most likely favoured by his wife).  He served as dean of the faculty of science (1952-56, 1960-65) and as a fellow on the university senate (1952-56, 1960-63). 

Room initiated changes to senior secondary school mathematics courses and examinations in New South Wales in the early 1950s and influenced the effects on mathematics of secondary school curriculum changes under the Wyndham scheme in the 1960s.  He visited several of the centres in the United States of America involved in the post-Sputnik reforms of mathematics, and returned willing to support, with reservations, similar changes proposed to school mathematics in New South Wales.  With colleagues he travelled the State, discussing some of the new emphases on the foundational underpinnings of mathematics with schoolteachers, and co-authored with J. M. Mack an explanatory text, The Sorting Process (1966).

A foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, Room was one of the four who created the Australian Mathematical Society, serving as president (1960-62) and as the founding editor of its journal.  The society made him one of its first two honorary life members.  He remained active in research after his retirement from the University of Sydney in 1968, widening its scope and extending his publications to more than sixty.  In 1968 the Mathematical Association of New South Wales established the T. G. Room award, given annually to the student(s) with the highest marks in mathematics in the New South Wales Higher School certificate.

In 1969-70 Room worked at Westfield College, University of London, on 'the non-Desarguesian wilderness' of projective planes, before joining the Open University in 1971.  He returned to the family home at St Ives, Sydney, in 1974.  Active for many years in the Boy Scout movement, he loved music and working in his garden.  Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 2 April 1986 at home and was cremated.  Professional colleagues remember him with great respect as fair, considerate and courteous, highly intelligent with intellectual integrity, yet essentially shy and somewhat formal in manner.  But to those who needed it, Room showed kindness, sympathy and understanding.  The University of Sydney named the mathematics branch library after him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Cohen, Counting Australia In, 2006
  • P. Donovan & J. Mack, 'Sydney University, T. G. Room and Codebreaking in WWII', part I, Australian Mathematical Soc Gazette, vol 29, no 2, 2002
  • P. Donovan & J. Mack, 'Sydney University, T. G. Room and Codebreaking in WWII', part II, Australian Mathematical Soc Gazette, vol 29, no 3, 2002, p 141
  • J. Freeman, A Passion for Physics, 1991, p 48
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 7, no 1, 1987, p 109
  • A663, item O130/2/1309 (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal knowledge

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Citation details

John Mack, 'Room, Thomas Gerald (1902–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 February 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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