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Legacy that does Presidency College proud

Staff Reporter

Maths department helped uncover Ramanujan's genius The seeds of the legacy were sown in 1855 when the college set up its maths department. A look at the department as it turns 150...



Classic look: The Presidency College campus at Marina, Chennai. — Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

CHENNAI: Some numbers are more special than the others, and nobody knows this better than the members of the mathematics department at the historic Presidency College.

Rewind to this day, a hundred and fifty years back, and one can almost imagine the inauguration of a modest department of mathematics with Eyre Burton Powell, the first principal of Presidency College, at the helm.

In 150 years, the department has seen 37 principals steer the college's affairs, nine of whom were professors from the department.

This department later played a pivotal role in bringing to light the genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan. In 1911, P.V. Seshu Iyer, a maths professor at Government College, Kumbakonam, was transferred to Presidency College as professor of mathematical physics. At that time, his student, S. Ramanujan, who having failed to pass the college examination in Kumbakonam, followed him to Madras.

Prof. Iyer encouraged his student to pursue original ideas, despite his failures in formal academics. The result: two thick notebooks containing Ramanujan's momentous contribution. Prof. Iyer sent Ramanujan's articles to the Journal of Indian Mathematical Society in 1911.

With support from Prof. Iyer and E.W. Middlemast, another maths professor at Presidency College (1910-1915), Ramanujan tackled the problems in Prof. Hardy's monograph, `Orders of Infinity', and sent his solutions to Prof. Hardy on January 16, 1913. The rest is history.

The college has seen several brilliant mathematicians-in-the-making pass through its portals who went on to serve the country as well as their field of study.

By 1949, the posts of pure and applied mathematics at Presidency College were abolished and a senior post of Chief professor of Mathematics was created. In 1955, a separate Statistics Department was set up.

The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, now at Taramani, Chennai came into being on January 3, 1962 at the Presidency College and continued to remain there for two years.

Today, the statue of Prof. Powell, stands under the central dome of the college, a reminder of how far the college has come.

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