By Steve Bishop
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Henry Martyn Cundy (1913-2005)
The Schools Maths Project (SMP) has shaped much of the English and Welsh schools maths curriculum. One of the key people behind it was Henry Martyn Cundy. His obituary in The Times described him as: “A mathematician of exceptional influence in school mathematics” (Thwaites, 2005).
Cundy, born in 1913 in Derby, was the son of an evangelical Anglican vicar. He attended the Christian Monkton Coombe school as a border in 1927 and went on to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1932.
He obtained his doctorate in the area of quantum theory in 1938. He then moved into teaching obtaining a post at the Sherborne public school in Dorset. He remained there until 1966.
Geoffrey Howson describes a meeting with Cundy:
“I realised that I was in the company of someone quite outstanding, with knowledge and interests extending far beyond mathematics, and who, within mathematics, possessed an enviable ability to structure and make connections between various topics and to communicate his thoughts with great fluency and clarity.”
Cundy was a committed Christian. He was secretary of the Cambridge Prayer Fellowship and in 1945 wrote The Faith of a Christian (Inter-Varsity Fellowship). He was an active member of the Anglican church and a Methodist local preacher.
In 1951 Cundy collaborated with A. P. Rollett to write Mathematical Models. In the preface they describe the aim of the book:
Mathematics is often regarded as the bread and butter of science. If the butter is omitted, the result is indigestion, loss of appetite, or both. The purpose of this book is to suggest some ways of buttering the bread. The human mind can seldom accept completely abstract ideas; they must be derived from, or illustrated by, concrete examples. Here the reader will find ways of providing for himself tangible objects which will bring that necessary contact with reality into the symbolic world of mathematics.
The SMP changed the British school mathematics curriculum. One of the instigators Sir Brian Thwaites in his obituary on Cundy describes it:
In 1961, however, there came the opportunity for decisive influence on school mathematics. In that year three heads of mathematics – Tom Jones from Winchester , Douglas Quadling from Marlborough with Martyn Cundy from Sherborne – met largely at the instigation of Bryan Thwaites (then a professor at Southampton and now Sir Bryan) to consider formulating new syllabuses at O- and A-level. They were an exceptional and remarkable trio and it is unlikely that such a powerful group could be formed nowadays from schools. They were hugely ambitious in their plans which included not merely new content but the writing of entirely new, and novel, texts and teachers’ guides, together with a large continuing programme of residential teacher-training courses. For these purposes, many more teachers became involved and a formal organisation was created with the name The School Mathematics Project. The SMP (as it became known) rapidly became the dominant player in the reform of school mathematics and its influence spread internationally and notably in Africa. And now, it is the only project of those heady years of curriculum reform in the early sixties which still operates.
His missionary zeal – for both mathematics and Christianity – led him to take up a post at the University of Malawi. There he became an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Malawi as well as professor of Mathematics at the University.
His son Ian (1945-2009) graduated from Cambridge in mathematics and theology he became the Bishop of Lewes and then the 37th Bishop of Peterborough. His other two sons David and Tim became mathematics teachers.
Howson, Geoffrey (2005) Independent 8 March.
Thwaites, Brian (2005) Times obituary
Cundy was a regular contributor to the Mathematical Gazette
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