Hector Munro Macdonald

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Hector Munro Macdonald OBE FRS[1] (19 January 1865 – 16 May 1935) was a Scottish mathematician, born in Edinburgh in 1865.[2] He researched pure mathematics at Cambridge University after graduating from Aberdeen University with an honours degree.

Both of Hector Macdonald's parents, his mother Annie Munro and his father Donald Macdonald, were from Kiltearn. Hector was the older of his parents' two sons and, as a young child, he lived in Edinburgh. However, not long after he began his schooling in the Scottish capital, the family moved to a farm near Hill of Fearn, in Easter Ross. After arriving, Hector attended the local school before attending the Royal Academy in Tain. He completed his school education at the Old Aberdeen Grammar School before entering Aberdeen University in 1882.

After studying mathematics at Aberdeen University, he graduated with First Class Honours in 1886 and won a Fullerton Scholarship. Macdonald proceeded to Cambridge to take the Mathematical Tripos after completing his first degree in Scotland. Entering Clare College, Cambridge, as a foundation scholar, he graduated as fourth Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos of 1889,[2] was awarded a fellowship at Clare in the following year and, in 1891, was awarded the second Smith's Prize.[3]

Macdonald held his fellowship at Clare College until 1908 but in 1914 he was awarded an honorary fellowship of his former College. He was awarded the Royal Society's Royal Medal in 1916 and, during 1916–18 served as president of the London Mathematical Society. During World War I, Macdonald did war service in London attached to the Ministry of Munitions where he dealt with wages. For his services he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1918 Birthday Honours.[4]

Macdonald worked on electric waves and solved difficult problems regarding diffraction of these waves by summing series of Bessel functions. He corrected his 1903 solution to the problem of a perfectly conducting sphere embedded in an infinite homogeneous dielectric in 1904 after a subtle error was pointed out by Poincaré. The major problem which he tackled was that of wireless waves. About the time that Macdonald published his prize winning essay on electric waves, Guglielmo Marconi was successful in the transmission of the first wireless signals across the Atlantic. However this posed a major problem at first because wireless signals, like light, should not be capable of being bent round the surface of the earth as apparently Marconi wireless signals were. Macdonald suggested that the wireless waves were being refracted by the atmosphere. It is now known that in fact the waves are reflected by the ionosphere.

Macdonald became Professor of Mathematics at the University of Aberdeen in 1905[5] and remained at the University for the rest of his life. He died in 1935 in Aberdeen.


  1. ^ Whittaker, E. T. (1935). "Hector Munro MacDonald. 1865-1935". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 1 (4): 550. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1935.0018. JSTOR 768985. 
  2. ^ a b Times Obituary accessed 23 December 2007
  3. ^ "Macdonald, Hector Munro (MDNT887HM)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30730. p. 6706. 7 June 1918.
  5. ^ "Macdonald biography". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 2008-01-05.