Eric Charles Milner, FRSC
May 17, 1928 - July 20, 1997
Eric Charles Milner joined the University of Calgary’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics in 1967 and served on its faculty for almost 30 years. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1976 and awarded the Canadian Mathematical Society’s Jeffery-Williams Prize in 1989 for his ground breaking work in combinatorial set theory. Eric is remembered for his generosity in both his professional and his personal life. A devoted mentor and educator, he was passionate about sharing mathematics with others. The Eric Milner Graduate Scholarship was established by friends and colleagues to honour Eric’s love of mathematics and his enthusiasm for demonstrating its beauty to the world.
Eric Milner was one of the early recruits to the faculty of the University of Calgary’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, accepting a professorship here in 1967 to join his fellow faculty members Richard Guy and Peter Lancaster with whom he had worked in Singapore. Eric was active in all aspects of life in the department, playing chess and Go with colleagues, working on problems in the Math Lounge with visitors on a wide range of topics, teaching, and producing research of the highest quality.
Eric was a research leader of international stature, receiving numerous honours for his ground breaking work in combinatorial set theory. He gave a plenary lecture on transversal theory at the 1974 International Congress of Mathematicians and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1976. The Canadian Mathematical Society awarded him the Jeffery-Williams Prize for outstanding contributions to mathematical research in 1989. Eric collaborated with numerous prominent scholars, many of whom came to Calgary. These included Paul Erdös (hosted for many short visits), András Hajnal for longer-term visits, and Maurice Pouzet.
Eric was a dedicated educator who taught a wide range of classes, large and small, in a variety of areas. Once, he told his Real Analysis class that when he was a student, it was fashionable to play games and be seen not to be working, but then to work hard early in the morning to get results. His advice to the class was that it was far better to work regularly and hard. Eric was passionate about sharing mathematics with others, which he accomplished in many ways, ranging from open lectures on major mathematical works to mathematical outreach to high school children. He once stated that he would not want a position that was pure research—he loved teaching and wanted his research to be the “icing on the cake”.
During World War II and the bombings of London, the school Eric attended on a scholarship was evacuated to the countryside in Kent. Unhappy with his billet, he ran away and returned home. A more suitable placement was found, first with a blind lawyer for one year and then with a lady and her companion. They all took great interest in this clever boy. Eric lived apart from his family from 1939 to 1945, during which time he developed an independence of spirit.
Eric attended Kings College in London, obtaining a BSc with First Class Honours in 1949, for which he was awarded the Drew Gold Medal as the top mathematics student of his cohort. A year later, he graduated with an MSc (with distinction) in Modern Algebra and Quantum Mechanics (Wave Mechanics) from Kings. To his disappointment, Eric’s partial deafness kept him from joining the Navy and later on posed occasional issues when teaching large classes. Rather than enlisting in the military, he was required to perform two years of service to the commonwealth. Eric set sail for Malaya to work as a tin assayer for the Straits Trading Company. This decision attests to his persistent independent disposition.
In Malaya, Eric met Richard Guy, Acting Head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Malaya in Singapore. Richard enticed Eric to take an academic position in his Department. Paul Erdös was a frequent visitor, and it was during that time that Eric developed his interest in combinatorial set theory. At Erdös’ suggestion, Eric took a sabbatical at Reading University to work with Richard Rado in 1958-59. Eric returned to Reading as a faculty member in 1961, where he set out to write his doctoral dissertation entitled “Some combinatorial problems in set theory”. He was awarded his PhD as an external student at the University of London in 1963.
Eric married Esther Stella (Estelle) Lawton in 1954 and they had four children, daughter Suzanne, and sons Mark, Paul and Simon. While working on her PhD in English at Calgary, Estelle tragically died of cancer in 1975. In 1979, Eric married Elizabeth Forsyth Borthwick. They had one son, Robert.
Eric served on the mathematics faculty at U of C for almost 30 years, 1967-1996. His colleagues remember him for his great mathematical generosity. As an editor and referee, he would often spend hours improving the exposition in a submission, sometimes providing more elegant proofs—without asking for recognition. He supervised six PhD students: S. Niven, S.P. Pethe, E. Nosal, W. Lenihan, J.-M. Brochet and L. Bo-Yu.
Eric was also generous in his personal life. Many of his friends have fond memories of the parties and dinners hosted by the Milner family, as well as cross-country skiing expeditions followed by a grand dinner at their Chalet in Canmore.
His many colleagues and friends were devastated by Eric’s death in July 1997 after a long battle with cancer. He continued his mathematical work to the end.
The Eric Milner Graduate Scholarship was established by friends and colleagues to honour Eric’s devotion to mathematics and his passion for celebrating its beauty with the world. It is awarded annually to a graduate student in Mathematics and Statistics enrolled in a thesis based degree, who has demonstrated not only excellence in research and scholarship, but also the capacity to share their expertise and love of mathematics with others. It is complemented by the Eric Milner Graduate Prize, sponsored by the Department and intended as a modest monetary reward for winners who hold other major awards and are thus ineligible to receive the Scholarship funds.
Those interested in preserving Dr. Milner’s legacy and growing the endowment that supports the Eric Milner Graduate Scholarship may contribute using the following link:
Eric Milner Scholarship and Prize Winners