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Weatherburn, Charles Ernest (1884–1974)

by A. K. Weatherburn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Charles Ernest Weatherburn (1884-1974), mathematician, was born on 18 June 1884 at Chippendale, Sydney, fifth child of Henry Weatherburn, engineer, and his wife Amelia, née Cummins, both English born. Educated at Blackfriars School and Sydney Boys' High School (captain in 1900), Charles attended the University of Sydney (B.A., 1904; B.Sc., 1905; M.A., 1906; D.Sc., 1916) and was awarded the university medal in mathematics. H. S. Carslaw wrote: 'He is without doubt the most distinguished of the Mathematical graduates of Sydney in the thirty-one years during which I have been head of our Department'. On a travelling scholarship in 1906, Weatherburn entered Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1908; M.A., 1915), where he was exhibitioner (1907) and major scholar (1908). At St Andrew's Anglican Church, Summer Hill, Sydney, on 6 March 1909 he married his childhood sweetheart Lucy May Dartnell (d.1972); they were to have three sons.

From 1909 he taught mathematics and physics at Sydney Boys' High School and tutored in these subjects at St Paul's College at the university until 1911. That year he was appointed lecturer in mathematics and theoretical physics at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, where J. H. Michell encouraged Weatherburn to write Elementary Vector Analysis (London, 1921) which was reprinted fourteen times before its revision in 1955. Like Michell, he was a man of refinement, reserved and highly principled. In 1923 Weatherburn was appointed to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Canterbury University College, University of New Zealand. Michell and E. J. Nanson had earlier recommended his original work on integral equations and relativity; Weatherburn added Advanced Vector Analysis (London, 1924) and the two-volume Differential Geometry (Cambridge, 1927, 1930) to his publications. In March 1929 he took up the foundation chair of mathematics at the University of Western Australia.

A grant (1935-36) from the Carnegie Corporation of New York led to his meeting the American mathematicians L. P. Eisenhart and O. Veblen, and to his Riemannian Geometry and the Tensor Calculus (Cambridge, 1938); in 1946 Weatherburn presented a copy of his First Course in Mathematical Statistics (Cambridge, 1946) to fellow mathematician Eamon de Valera, long-time president of Ireland. Despite Weatherburn's prolific output of books and papers, his other responsibilities were not neglected. Running his department single-handed, and with the help of a lecturer after 1938, drew from him 'businesslike qualities of a very high order'. He was unstinting in his assistance to students. His peers acknowledged his gift of lucid exposition, his love of teaching and his power of easy control in his classes. Weatherburn retired in 1950.

The Royal Society of New Zealand had awarded him the Hector medal in 1934 and in 1951 the University of Glasgow conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of laws. Survived by two sons, Weatherburn died on 18 October 1974 at Claremont, Perth, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. A mathematics lecture theatre at the University of Western Australia had been named (1971) in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal of the Australian Mathematical Society, 21, 1976, p 1
  • British Australasian, 16 Mar 1911
  • Australasian, 18 Feb 1911
  • Western Mail (Perth), 31 Jan 1929
  • West Australian, 19 Oct 1974
  • H. Weatherburn diary and papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

A. K. Weatherburn, 'Weatherburn, Charles Ernest (1884–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 January 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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