John Frankland Rigby


John Rigby was a member of staff in the School of Mathematics from 1959 until his retirement in 1996, although he continued in a part-time capacity for several further years; he had attained the position of Reader at the time of his retirement.  John passed away on 29th December 2014 at University of Wales Hospital, Cardiff.  His funeral was held at Llandaff Cathedral on 13th January, with the Dean of the Cathedral and the Archbishop of Wales officiating.

John was a student at Manchester Grammar School, and went on to study mathematics at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels at Trinity College, Cambridge.  His PhD thesis, under the supervision of Philip Hall, was entitled: “Theory of Finite Linear Groups”.
During his time at Cardiff, John visited universities in Turkey, Canada, Singapore, the Philippines, and Japan, becoming very well known nationally and internationally.  Professor Jeff Griffiths, John's ex-Head of Department at Cardiff, but to begin with, his student, was also inspired by John to take up his particular career.  'I owe him a debt of gratitude. …in John’s first year as a member of staff… he gave wonderful lectures on Complex Analysis with his own inimitable blackboard sketches of complicated curves.  …He told us that he had previously been working at GCHQ, finishing off his PhD while working there.  …we tried to wheedle out of him what went on in this mysterious establishment, but John was typically tight-lipped – not a comma nor full-stop could be drawn out of him.'  

John was an active, long-term member of the UK Mathematical Association, serving as President of the Cardiff Branch in the 1970s and as Secretary from 1989–96.  John contributed very elegant solutions to problems that were posed in the Mathematical Gazette; his research papers were similarly elegant, concise and free of unnecessary jargon. He regularly presented his work at the annual conferences of the Association until he could no longer manage the journey.

Despite the encroaching severity of Parkinson's Disease, from which he suffered for several years, John remained in demand not only for international conferences, but for workshops for young mathematicians.  For many years, with his colleague and friend, Professor Jim Wiegold, he ran the University's Mathematics Club for talented sixth formers, drawn particularly from Cardiff High, the Cathedral School, Howells School Llandaff, and schools in Monmouth. A worksheet was circulated to the schools a month before each meeting.  John (and Jim) would then invite students to present their solutions at the blackboard.  Although students often produced technically correct solutions, almost inevitably John would produce far more elegant ones, drawing gasps of admiration from the audience, particularly with regard to his ability to produce magnificently accurate diagrams on the blackboard.  His perfectly-drawn circles were indeed a wonder to behold.  

Among John's papers are hand-written pages of assessments by students.  He was clearly admired and well-liked:

" Dr. Rigby is ACE ! I love him !"

"Dr. Rigby is amazing the way in which he explains and presents his material, is very methodical and he makes it extremely easy to understand! Why didn't we have him last year?..."

"It's a pity that our other lecturers aren't as good as this. Maybe then more people would attend and enjoy it, rather than being bored !"

"Dear Mr. Rigby, Thanks for putting up with me during last year's maths lectures for civils. I am now away from school, and off to build things, Much appreciated, cheers - Bob Tarbuck Civils III ( short bloke with beard and glasses )"

The aspects of geometry which were particularly interesting to John included Japanese traditional geometry, with its inherent artistic qualities, and the mathematical detail of Islamic and Celtic art.  John became a world expert in the connection between mathematics and 'ornamental art', and created his own designs and patterns.  His drawings were often shared with privileged friends as Christmas cards.  Many of the patterned ‘kneelers’ in Llandaff Cathedral were designed by John.  He also worked on other church textiles.  Every stitch was depicted on graph paper, and then translated into needlepoint by parish groups.

John was a member of the Welsh Folk Dance Society, and a regular participant for many years in both Highland and Scottish Country Dancing here and abroad.  The patternmaking and potential for complex choreography in Scottish country dances led him, like some other maths and science academics, to devise and publish dances.  Several were created for the Cardiff Caledonian Society, at whose weekly dance evenings John continued to be present until his move into Ty Enfys Care Home.  

John was a dedicated defender of wildlife, and an ardent supporter of environmental conservation.  A keen rambler while health allowed, he loved the countryside, though the Manchester canals and the Thames also offered favourite places to walk. The Lake District was particularly dear to him. His pleasure on being taken by friends to enjoy fresh air in local parks during the last two years of his life was palpable.

In their turn, those friends took pleasure in the strong sense of humour which had been with John from childhood. A relative recounted how John’s horrified mother found her young son apparently sticking together broken pieces from her prized blue and white Cornishware.  With a wicked grin, the young artist revealed that the shards were, in fact, blue and white painted cardboard.  John’s acute powers of observation, his lack of self-pity, his sharp wit, the one-liners and repartee never left him. Even in his final, painful days in hospital, hardly able to speak, he nevertheless told a visiting friend, with the ghost of a smile, that he was 'not dead yet'.  John had disarming charm, and will be remembered with appreciation, affection, and respect by his many friends and colleagues at Cardiff University.

- Professor Jeff Griffiths
School of Mathematics
January 2015