Mathematics' importance has been recognised for a long time. Plato wrote, 'God ever geometrizes'. Without mathematics our technological society could not exist. Mathematics underpins, for example, the design of aircraft, mobile phone networks, medical imaging and the study of the human genome. Far from making mathematics obsolete, the development of computers has increased the need for mathematics in areas such as optimisation and computer security. It is vital that schoolchildren learn mathematics so that they can participate fully in today's society. University graduates in Mathematics find ready employment in commerce, industry and government. Employers are well aware that the subject teaches one to think, reason and analyse.
Mathematics courses have been offered at the University of Tasmania since it first accepted students in 1893. Alexander McAulay, the first lecturer, was promoted to Professor of Mathematics and Physics in 1896, and became Research Professor in 1924 before retiring in 1929. Edwin Pitman followed him as Professor of Mathematics, 1926–62. Until the mid-1940s, Mathematics was a two-person department. In 1928, Edith Lowenstern was appointed as a Lecturer, the first woman to hold a full-time academic appointment at the University of Tasmania. She resigned in 1936 and was succeeded by John Jaeger, of 'Carslaw and Jaeger' textbook fame. He became Professor of Applied Mathematics in 1950 before resigning the next year. After the Second World War, the department grew steadily until the early 1980s when there were thirteen academic staff. Today there are only eight mathematicians in a School of Mathematics and Physics. In 1964, David Elliott was appointed as Professor of Applied Mathematics. By the time he retired in 1994, three men had virtually spanned a century of Mathematics at the University of Tasmania.
The department continued with two Professors of Mathematics until 1993 when Rudi Lidl, appointed as Professor of Pure Mathematics in 1976, became Deputy Vice-Chancellor. After Elliott's retirement, in 2000 Larry Forbes was appointed Professor of Mathematics. He has overseen the merger of the former Mathematics and Physics Departments into a School of Mathematics and Physics, which is how it all began in 1893.
Over the years the department produced many graduates who have gone on to take senior academic positions both in Australia and overseas. Many stayed in Tasmania and have made considerable contribution as teachers of Mathematics. Of graduates who have pursued non-academic careers, perhaps the most noteworthy is Ashton Calvert. He won the Rhodes Scholarship in 1966 and, at Oxford, completed a doctorate in Pure Mathematics. He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is currently its secretary. In 2000, the University awarded him an honorary Doctorate.
McAulay published a book on octonions, a generalisation of complex numbers. Pitman was a statistician of high repute. In the last forty years, the department has become well known internationally for its research in algebra, numerical analysis, statistics and, more recently, fluid dynamics and inverse problems. During that time its members have written many books, and numerous papers have been published in learned journals.