A lecturer who
was 'only for the
Barbara Millar's person of the week
A number of university professors were invited in 1885 to make inspections of secondary schools in Scotland. They quickly discovered that, although Lord Young's Education Act of 1872 had revolutionised primary education, secondary education had not only not kept pace it was very many steps behind.
'Many of the secondary schools were in a dying condition and others, apparently prosperous, were, in reality, much under-staffed and far from efficient and were engaged, moreover, in the pursuit of low educational ideals,' wrote one of these professors. This state of affairs, he believed, could only be cured by the extension of the policy of state aid to secondary schools, and by the introduction of a school leaving certificate examination, an idea that was quickly embraced, and then successfully introduced by Sir Henry Craik.
The university professor who came up with the idea was George Chrystal. Chrystal was born in 1851 in Old Meldrum, near Aberdeen, the son of grain merchant and farmer William Chrystal and his wife, Margaret. In 1863 Chrystal entered Aberdeen Grammar School from where he won a scholarship to Aberdeen University in 1867. By the time of his graduation with first class honours in mathematics and natural physics in 1871, he had won all the available mathematical distinctions and was awarded an open scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge where he studied under James Clerk Maxwell.
'When I went to the university of Cambridge, I found that the course there for the ordinary degree in arts was greatly inferior in educational quality to the Scottish one,' he later wrote. 'On the other hand, the courses in honours were of a very much higher standard, although they suffered greatly from the chaotic organisation of the English universities. I might liken the difference between the English and Scottish university courses at that time to the difference that then existed between their national styles of cookery. The Scottish cuisine was characterised by lightness and variety, the English cuisine was noted for its plenty and excellence of material, but lacked variety and the defective preparation of its dishes often left them heavy and indigestible.
'I have frequently been tempted to think that the three years I spent as an undergraduate at Cambridge were wasted years of my life, if they were to be valued merely by the amount of new knowledge acquired. But they were of great advantage to me in other respects. I made the acquaintance of a large number of the ablest men of my generation. Cambridge at this time numbered among its members perhaps the greatest galaxy of intellectual stars that ever illustrated any period of the history of a university.'
Chrystal graduated from Cambridge in 1875 and shortly afterwards was elected a fellow and lecturer in mathematics and physics at Corpus Christi college. Two years later he successfully applied for the post of regius chair of mathematics at St Andrews University where, in addition to teaching, he completed several articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, becoming a permanent contributor to the ninth edition. In 1879 he married a childhood friend, Margaret Ann Balfour, in Bonn, and they went on to have four sons and two daughters. But before leaving for his marriage in Germany, he applied for - and was appointed to – the vacant chair of mathematics at Edinburgh University, giving his inaugural address that same year on the history of mathematics.
In 1880 Chrystal was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and, after spending three terms on the council of the society, he became its general secretary and was instrumental in securing its permanent location in George Street, Edinburgh. He was also much involved in setting up the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. His most influential work, 'Algebra: an elementary textbook', was published in 1886, and was praised by reviewers as 'the most complete work on algebra' and 'in lucidity of exposition it is second to none'. Generations of students learned algebra from this book.
J M Barrie described Chrystal and his first-year mathematics class as 'a
fine hare for the hounds who keep up with him', while one of Barrie’s
fellow students carved the warning: 'All hope abandon, ye who enter
here' on his desktop with a penknife.
He also published over 70 papers – on mathematical topics including geometry, optics and differential equations, on physics and scientific biographies. His 32-year tenure of the chair of mathematics at Edinburgh was described as 'a time of a progressive and substantial rise in the standards of the mathematical syllabus teaching at the university', especially after the institution of specialised honours degrees, introduced following the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1899. The main burden of formulating policies and drafting regulations under the Act fell to Chrystal, as dean of the faculty of arts, a position he held from 1890 until his death. He himself was described as 'an outstanding administrator, with an exceptionally quick grasp of detail, tactful, fair-minded and forward-looking'.
His motto was always 'greater freedom and higher standards', which he pursued in various ways: through the introduction of the school leaving certificate exam, acting as an inspector of secondary schools and negotiating the transfer of the teacher training colleges from control by the various Presbyterian churches to a new committee, of which he was the first chair. However his 'higher standards' sometimes left the average students attending his classes in states of confusion and despair, his lectures often cited as being 'only for the gifted few'.
J M Barrie described Chrystal and his first-year mathematics class as 'a fine hare for the hounds who keep up with him', while one of Barrie's fellow students carved the warning: 'All hope abandon, ye who enter here' on his desktop with a penknife. Chrystal's lectures were allegedly so difficult that few students willingly took his classes and legend has it that, one day, a notice was hung up on the door of his lecture room, which read: 'There will be no class today as the student is unwell'.
The last years of Chrystal's life were devoted to a new research topic. In 1903 he was asked to give an account of the hydro-dynamical principles of seiches (oscillations in the water level occurring in lochs and along sea coasts) and he published major papers on them from 1904-6. He said this had revived his interest in carrying out experiments and, in 1905, organised a large-scale investigation of the seiches of Loch Earn, making observations for comparison on Loch Tay and Loch Lubnaig. He supervised all the work and designed special instruments to carry out the measurements.
George Chrystal died in November 1911 – 100 years ago, in his 60th year – and was buried at Foveran, Aberdeenshire. Just before his death he was awarded the prestigious Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London. And, although many students were perplexed by his intellectually demanding lectures, others saw a completely different man. 'Those who know only the Chrystal of the classroom know little of him,' wrote one student. 'There is the Chrystal of the private interview – kindly, sympathetic, helpful. And there is the Chrystal who, as dean of the faculty of arts, advises the timid urchin hesitating on the threshold of his academic career, or guides the inexperienced footsteps of students as they face out into the unknown world. And there are many who owe him more than they themselves are aware of.'
Barbara Millar is a tour guide and freelance journalist