Reminiscences of Dr Frederick Syer, MBE PhD DIC BA DipEd, Reader in Engineering Mathematics

Fred Syer was an amazing human being as well as an inspiring lecturer.  He was in his early sixties when I first encountered him, when I was a final year electrical engineering student: he was white bearded, his shoulders somewhat hunched, a paunch on an otherwise thin body, with a continually twinkling cheerfulness about his rather boney face.

I met him at his first lecture to the Engineering Maths IV class of 1966, in a second-floor lecture room in Old Engineering, seating perhaps thirty of us. He began by introducing himself formally as Dr Syer, but managed – as though by mistake – to reveal that his name was Fred.  He then distributed some hand-ripped cardboard covers from old school exercise books for us to write on in answering some questions he wished to put to us. (Fred was practising recycling well before this became fashionable.)  His first three questions were not unexpected: our name, a contact number, and our mathematics results in the previous years.

But then he asked: “Please write down if you have any special disadvantages that I should take into account in assessing your work, such as your being blind, deaf  … or a member of a secret society.”

This drew a laugh.

“Well then, logically I should also ask you:  do you have any special advantages that I should take into account, such as your being happily married?”.

In those days we engineering students tended to be all single males, so this question drew some large guffaws.

Fred turned on us. “Don’t laugh: being happily married can make the most wonderful difference to your lives.”  We felt he was talking from deep personal experience.

He asked us to hand in our answers, and then said: “Well, since I’ve asked you for personal information, it’s only fair I should tell you something about myself.

“I suffer from a fatal disease, multiple sclerosis.”

He then wrote a seven-digit number on the board. (Remember, this was 1966.) “This is the phone number for my wife, Kitty.  If I should drop dead during a lecture, I want you to telephone her.”

There was a deeply shocked silence.

“Don’t worry,” he said with an endearing smile, “I’ve never been known to drop dead in a lecture yet.’

After that, we were eating out of his hand for the rest of the year.

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1966 was an active year for political demonstrations against the Vietnam War; the Menzies government had introduced conscription in 1965, and several of us were ‘drafted’ that year when our birthdays were randomly balloted.

One day at the beginning of class, Dr Syer said that had something important to tell us.  “I was proud to serve in the Royal Australian Airforce during the Second World War.  I’m equally proud to support one of your class members who is standing up for his right to protest against the Vietnam War.”

It turned out that one of our number, Andy Blunden, had featured on the front page of the previous day’s Herald, for burning his call-up papers.  Andy finished the year with a first class degree in Civil Engineering, went underground for a while, managed to leave the country without being arrested by the authorities, spent some time in Paris and then earned a PhD in structural engineering at the University College London.

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In winter we noticed his symptoms got noticeably worse. On bad days, he would call upon a student to read out a passage from a textbook, while he lay on his back on a low podium near the front of the class, and conducted a question and answer session from there.  On really bad days, he had to stay at home, and be replaced by a colleague from the Mathematics Department.

Partly because I had a relative who also suffered from multiple sclerosis, and partly because I enjoyed so much the mathematics he was teaching us, I got to know Fred quite well that year (although in those respectful times he was always ‘Dr Syer’ to me, until well after I graduated).

He told me that in 1957, his physical symptoms had reached an all-time low.  “I had to bring spare underwear in my briefcase to work each day, because sometimes I couldn’t make it to the facilities in time.”  He pointed his two index fingers at each other. “And some days I couldn’t control my fingers so they would touch each other.”

His deteriorating health made it impossible to continue lecturing. On medical advice, he took extended sick leave from the University and decided to go to London with his first wife Margherita to undertake a PhD, which he was awarded in March 1960.  (In those days, fewer than half of our lecturers had doctorates.)

“My thesis supervisor was a blind mathematician. Between the two of us, we made one whole man.” (A ‘whole man’ with two amazing minds, I thought at the time.)

Sadly for Fred, Margherita became seriously ill on her return to Melbourne, and died in February 1961.

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Three years after Fred returned to Australia from London to resume lecturing, he found he was falling in love with a mature aged student, Kitty, in one of his third year BA mathematics classes. “I had this terrible dilemma of a conflict of interest, and felt I had to ask a colleague to mark her exams,” he told me. He confided his problem to a close friend, John (‘Jack’) Ryan – another brilliant and eccentric lecturer in engineering mathematics, with whom Fred used to enjoy discussing politics and religion on a regular basis. (John was an active member of the editorial committee of the left-wing Catholic Worker, and was also Secretary of the Anti-Hanging Committee in Melbourne.)  Fred said: “When I told John I’d fallen in love with a student, his response was:  ‘You cad!!’”

Another colleague from Mathematics agreed to mark the Pure Mathematics IIIB exam papers that year; Kitty, a science graduate who was already working as a hospital microbiologist, not only passed but actually topped the class; and a year later, while in her thirties, she married Fred and later had two children with him, Anne and John.

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Fred was very popular with his academic colleagues as well as his students, and I was pleased to learn some months afterwards that at a farewell function in the Faculty of Engineering in 1967, he had been awarded a ‘private chair in engineering mathematics’… in his case, a splendidly upholstered leather one.

Due in large measure to the full-time care Fred received from Kitty, he lived to reach his 90th birthday, still mentally alert although considerably physically handicapped.

An iconic photo of Fred, taken while lecturing at the University’s temporary Mildura campus in 1948,  appears on p.139 of Increasing Momentum, Carolyn Rasmussen’s magnificent history of engineering at the University of Melbourne from 1861-2004.  Emeritus Professor Len Stevens tells me that he was one of Fred’s students at Mildura, commencing in the first year the engineering course was offered there in 1947.

Peter Gerrand (Electrical, 1966) – with thanks to Kitty Syer and Andy Blunden for feedback on the original draft.

January 2011

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