Remembering Norman Blackburn, former pure maths professor

Norman Blackburn, formerly Fielden Professor of Pure Mathematics at The University of Manchester, died on 24 May 2018, aged 87, after a short illness. He held that position from 1977 to 1995, the year of his retirement.

His initial appointment, as Assistant Lecturer, at the University came in 1958 after his Ph.D. at Cambridge. He resigned in 1960 to participate in the University of Chicago's 1960–61 Group Theory Year, which brought together most of the initial young contributors to the classification of finite simple groups, one of the main achievements of 20th century mathematics.

Norman returned to Manchester in 1961 as Lecturer and, later, as Senior Lecturer in 1964. In the following year he returned to the United States as a professor at the reorganised and rebuilt Chicago branch of the state university, named the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. In 1975 he returned to Manchester as Professor of Pure Mathematics, and later assumed the Fielden Professorship.

During the final year of his Ph.D studies he spent a long period at the Mathematisches Institut der Universität Tübingen, having mastered German during his National Service performed in Austria prior to his undergraduate years at Trinity College, Cambridge. His engagement with German mathematicians continued throughout his academic career.

Norman's field of expertise was the theory of finite groups, a topic with a long history in Great Britain. Its principal exponent here in the mid-20th century was Philip Hall, Norman's thesis advisor. The topic of his thesis was groups of prime-power order, a subject to which he made significant contributions throughout his career.

His work in the wider subject of finite groups was considerable. Most impressive was his completion, in close collaboration with its original author, of the final two volumes Finite Groups. II, III of Bertram Huppert's Endliche Gruppen I. The finished study comprises some1800 pages.

Aside from his mathematics, he had a variety of other interests, for example, music (especially opera), travel and languages (German, Italian, Norwegian). These were approached with the same enthusiasm, energy and thoroughness that he showed in his mathematics.

Norman had grown up in Huddersfield, completing his education there at Huddersfield College by winning a scholarship to Trinity College. Nonetheless most of his life was centred in Manchester. It was here as well where he met his wife Joan Herbert and where their two daughters were born, and here where he spent his final years.

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