Edward Fraenkel

By Korana Burke


Edward Fraenkel FRS, who died on Saturday 27th April 2019 aged 91, was born in Germany, the youngest child of the eminent classicist Eduard Fraenkel. When Eduard was dismissed from academic posts because of antisemitic laws the family fled Nazi Germany, and settled in Oxford when he became Corpus Professor of Latin in 1935. (In later life Edward quoted [1] his mother Ruth, whom he adored, as saying “Thanks to Hitler we fell upstairs”.)

Young Edward attended the Dragon School in Oxford where he was a contemporary of Peter Swinnerton-Dyer who was two months younger. While the rest of his family stayed in the UK during World War II, Edward was evacuated to Canada where he entered the University of Toronto to study aeronautical engineering at the age of 16. Four years later he had completed a postgraduate masters degree with a thesis on the design of nozzles for supersonic wind tunnels. He was proud that he did not have a PhD.

After the war he returned to the UK and spent four years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment as a Scientific Officer followed by a year in Glasgow before moving to Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College. Increasingly drawn to mathematics by a desire to put theoretical aeronautics on a rigorous footing, and after an enjoyable stay at Caltech during 1957-8, he moved to the Mathematics Department at Imperial in 1961. By this time his reputation was growing and, after considering several attractive offers, in 1964 he accepted an invitation from George Batchelor to join the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Cambridge. From there he moved to Sussex University, which was then emerging as the major centre for theoretical partial differential equations research in the UK [2], first as a research professor for three years in 1975 and then as a member of staff in 1978. Papers combining mathematical rigour with physical relevance remained his forte, but now he was supported and appreciated by colleagues who shared his interests in modern analysis, and he thrived. After semi-retirement he moved in 1987 to the University of Bath where he continued to do important new work and wrote his book on the maximum principle in the theory of elliptic equations [3]. He was awarded the London Mathematical Society Senior Whitehead Prize in 1989 and elected FRS in 1993.

Edward was quite a character, offering cash prizes for solutions to questions he raised during seminars (bigger prizes for students than for professors). He said that to be a good teacher you had to be a bit stupid, for otherwise you couldn’t understand the difficulties students were facing. In his celebrated paper [4] on rooms and passages he thanked Louis Nirenberg “for being kind enough to play with good grace the role of Wedding-Guest to my Ancient Mariner on the subject of irregular boundaries”. He was an entertaining raconteur and everyone who knew him will remember his posh voice either offering penetrating criticism or self-deprecation, but always with grace and charm.

All his life he kept very fit, with long cycle rides up and down steep hills (but not without serious accidents) into his 70s and skiing enthusiastically into his 80s. He was very interested in the encouragement of young people, through the UK Mathematics Trust, the mathematical olympiad movement and the Scottish Mathematical Council, and made significant personal donations to support individual students.

He is survived by his wife Beryl, his daughters, and grand and great-grand children.


[1]   The Pelican Record, Corpus Christi College, Vol. L, Dec. 2014, p. 18.

[2]   LMS Newsletter, March 2018, pp. 36--38.

[3]   An Introduction to Maximum Principles and Symmetry in Elliptic Problems, CUP, 2000.

[4]   Proc. LMS, (3) 39 (1979) pp. 385--427.



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