David Monk: Doyen of the International Mathematical Olympiad
Died: 03 October, 2022, Edinburgh
David was born in Manchester but grew up in Gatley, Cheshire. He was soon seen to be a
gifted child and won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School. There he excelled in a
wide range of subjects and showed a particular interest in languages, studying French
Latin and Greek. Although he retained this interest throughout his life, he decided to
concentrate on Mathematics. Having gained distinctions in Pure Mathematics, Applied
Mathematics and Physics, he was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. He
was awarded his BA in 1954 and his doctorate in 1958.
David's first job was as an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Hull and then in 1960 he
moved to a lectureship at the University of Edinburgh where he stayed until his retirement
in 1992 as a Senior Lecturer. David was an outstanding teacher whose lectures were a
model of clarity with the utmost attention to detail. The solutions to tutorial questions
were beautifully produced in his distinctive handwriting and placed in a reading room
where students could copy them out (usually in much less beautiful handwriting!).
At the University of Edinburgh, rather than writing research papers he was able to develop
his lifelong interest in mathematical competitions for high school pupils. In 1967 the UK
took part in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) for the first time. David was
involved from the start, being Deputy Leader of the UK team in 1968. He went on to
attend the IMO four times as Team Leader and four more times as Deputy Leader.
David possessed extraordinary creativity and ingenuity in composing interesting and
challenging problems. As recently as 2016, two of his problems were used in the British
Mathematical Olympiad. Others have been used in the Balkan Mathematical Olympiad, the
Romanian Master of Mathematics and the Gulf Mathematical Olympiad. However, it was in
the arena of the IMO that David achieved international renown. He was the author of 13
problems that were chosen to appear on IMO papers, making him the most prolific
composer of IMO problems in the world. David's achievements were recognised in 2018 by
the receipt of a Paul Erdos Award from the World Federation of National Mathematics
Competitions. Many more details of his contribution to IMO, including a list of the problems he
created, can be found in his citation for his award in this link.
David kept a meticulous record of his problems in little pocket books, again all in his own
neat handwriting. The books contain his famous "Background Problems", which were used
at the annual camp at Trinity College, Cambridge for prospective IMO team members.
However, perhaps the most remarkable section is headed "Problem Ideas", of which there
are no fewer than 203(!). Some of these ideas might lead to IMO problems in the future
so that David's legacy can live on.
David's marriage to Isobel brought him many years of happiness. Together they indulged
his love of travel which stemmed from his trips to IMOs all over the world. Isobel died in
2019 and David's last years were spent in a care home. Although Covid restrictions made
life difficult, he showed great resilience and remained as sharp as a tack right up to the
end. He was a true gentleman and the essence of kindness.
On a personal note, David gave me my very first mathematics lecture at the University of
Edinburgh in 1964. Little did I realise that I was to be taught by a future giant of the
David Monk died on 3 October 2022, aged 90.
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Strathclyde.
24 December 2022