Professor John Howie


The distinguished mathematician Professor John Howie, who has died in St Andrews aged 75, was a pioneer and an acknowledged international expert in Semigroup mathematics.

He later authored an influential report on Scottish education.

When Prof Howie first researched Semigroup theory, which applies to abstract algebraic systems, it was a novel and innovative system. He wrote learned papers on the subject and a book, Fundamentals of Semigroup Theory, was hailed by academic colleagues as an indispensable source on the topic.

Professor Nick Ruskuc was a student and a colleague at St Andrews with Prof Howie and particularly recalls his scholarship and knowledge. "John's work and writings on Semigroup maths was hugely influential. He was one of the world's leading researchers and his books rightly brought him international respect and eminence."

John Mackintosh Howie was born in Chryston, Lanarkshire, and educated at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen, where he was dux of the school. He then read mathematics at Aberdeen University, qualifying in 1958 with first class honours. In 1961 he wrote his thesis ("Some problems in the theory of semigroups") at Balliol College, Oxford.

His first post was at Glasgow University where he was a lecturer from 1961-67. Prof Howie subsequently spent three years as senior lecturer in mathematics at Stirling University before becoming Regius Professor at St Andrews University in 1970. It is a most ancient and distinguished posting (in the grant of the Queen) and Prof Howie fulfilled it with utmost dignity and energy.

His eminence was such that Prof Howie held many visiting professorships at universities in America (New York and Buffalo) and Australia (Western Australia). His wide experience of the educational system ensured that he sat on many committees in Scotland (the Dunning Committee; Chairman, Scottish Central Committee for Mathematics) but his principal contribution to reform of the educational system in Scotland was his chairmanship of the Howie Committee of 1992.

The Howie Report, entitled Upper Secondary Education in Scotland, was commissioned by the UK Government through the Scottish Office. The report argued that Scottish education should be judged against European standards and not by those in the UK. It analysed in detail the strengths and weaknesses of Scottish education as it applied to those aged 16-18 and its central recommendations were that the end-of-school examinations should be replaced by an academic Baccalaureate qualification and a vocational Scottish certificate in a new, twin-stream system. This solution proved too radical as critics argued that it would not provide parity of esteem, or equal standing for young people who pursued the vocational option.

Although the recommendations were rejected, the Howie Report proved to be the platform for the Higher Still reform of upper secondary education. In 2005, Prof Howie noted in The Herald how relevant his recommendations continued to be.

He was a popular figure around St Andrews. Although he retired in 1997 he was appointed emeritus professor and remained active in the university. He was a keen musician -- playing the organ in his local church -- and an avid gardener.

Music played a central role throughout his life and in 2005 he gave a paper at the Royal Society of Edinburgh entitled A Mathematician looks at Music.

Prof Ruskuc said: "John was always very friendly and warm both when I was his student and as a colleague. Working with him was a wonderful and rewarding experience. As a student you never quite knew what subject would be discussed -- tutorials ranged from maths to Mozart to Yugoslavia. It was always exciting. John spoke quietly but one always felt reassured in his presence."

Prof Howie, who was made a CBE in 1993, married Dorothy Miller in 1960. He is survived by his wife and by one of their two daughters.

John Howie, born: May 23, 1936; died: December 26, 2011.

Alasdair Steven

5 January 2012 The Herald