WHERE WERE YOU WHEN: Ruth Lawrence went to Oxford

The child prodigy (and her overbearing father) were constant curiosities, says Miranda Thompson.

Ruth Lawrence
‘You’re cramping my style, dad!’ Ruth and her father Harry. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo.

There are many ways to make an entrance when you start university – but cycling to lectures on the back of a tandem steered by your father probably isn’t on the list for most freshers. However, aged 12 and dressed in a cap and gown, Ruth Lawrence’s arrival at St Hugh’s College at Oxford University hit the headlines. The budding mathematician had made history two years earlier when she’d become the youngest person to win a place at Oxford.

When she was five, her father Harry gave up his job as a computer consultant to teach Ruth and her younger sister Rebecca at home in Huddersfield. Neither Ruth nor Rebecca was allowed friends of their own age as he thought they would ‘taint them with trivial conversation and pointless games – childhood’s not a time to be playing around, but a time to be developing’.

Following Ruth’s offer from Oxford, they moved to the city and the father and daughter became a familiar sight as they cycled around campus. Ruth’s parents’ marriage ended shortly after the move, but Harry continued to be actively involved in her education, sitting by her side in tutorials and lectures, while her mother remained with Rebecca.

Ruth, who said she ‘didn’t take much part in student life’, completed her studies in two years (instead of the usual three), graduating in 1985 as the youngest British person ever to gain a first-class degree. She achieved a PhD in 1989 and moved to the US, followed by her father, to teach at Harvard. However, their relationship became more distant when, aged 27, Ruth decided to take a job in Jerusalem and married a fellow maths expert just six years younger than her father.

Now a mother of four and a devout Jew, Ruth is an expert in the obscure field of mathematical knots (a type of algebra) and teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Harry reportedly last visited his daughter there at her wedding in 1998.

Also that month…

Photo by AndreCsillag/REX/Shutterstock​
  • Neil Kinnock’s election to Labour leader was overshadowed when he fell over during a press call on Brighton beach.
  • 250,000 people marched for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) against the arrival of Cruise missiles at Greenham Common, Berkshire.
  • Tory cabinet minister Cecil Parkinson resigned after having an affair with his former secretary Sara Keays, who was expecting his baby.
  • ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club was number one for the whole month.