Jan Saxl obituary

Other Lives: Czech-born mathematician who made his home in Britain

My husband, Jan Saxl, who has died aged 71, was a Cambridge University mathematician and a leading international researcher in algebra, particularly in finite group theory, representation theory and applications to number theory and logic.

Collaborative in his research, he had more than 100 papers published in conjunction with 55 different co-authors, and over the years held visiting positions at Chicago, Perth, Rutgers, Princeton, Jerusalem and Caltech universities.

Jan was born in Brno in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), the youngest child of Hedda (nee Treulich) and her husband, Otto Saxl, a paediatrician. His parents had lost most of their family members in concentration camps during the second world war and they were part of the small Jewish community that remained in the city after the conflict.

After Elgartova middle school, in 1966 Jan entered Masaryk University in Brno to study mathematics, but soon everything changed. In 1968 he was returning from a holiday in Britain when he discovered that Russian tanks had entered his homeland, bent on crushing the Prague Spring.

Quickly deciding to return to Britain as a refugee, he completed his maths degree at Bristol University and then did a doctorate at Oxford University before taking up a post at Downing College, Cambridge, as a teaching fellow in mathematics. I was in a similar job at Girton College, and we met while supervising each other’s students. We married in 1979 and our daughter, Miriam, was born the following year.

Jan spent the rest of his career at Cambridge, becoming a fellow of Gonville and Caius College in 1986 and a professor in the pure mathematics department in 2003.

While thinking about mathematics research most of his waking hours, he was also an enthusiastic and effective teacher. The highlight of his first-year group theory lectures was a hand-bell ringing session with student participation. The students voted him lecturer of the year in 1992.

Although Jan considered himself a British mathematician, he was
conscious of his Czech-Jewish heritage. An avid concert-goer, he loved classical music and insisted that Czech opera be sung in Czech. He had a passion for collecting wild mushrooms, especially in the mountains, and no slope was ever too steep to scramble up or down to retrieve a prize specimen.

Jan’s later years were plagued by ill health. He contracted meningitis at a conference in Brazil in 2012, which was the beginning of his decline, and he retired in 2015. Although he was understandably frustrated by his loss of ability to do mathematics and to hike in the mountains, he bore everything with courage and dignity.

He is survived by me, Miriam, his granddaughters, Maya and Eva, and his siblings Petr and Noemi.

Ruth Saxl

The GuardianTramp

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