Story: Segar, Hugh William

Page 1 - Biography

Segar, Hugh William

1868–1954

Mathematician, university professor

This biography was written by D. A. Nield and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Hugh William Segar was born at Liverpool, England, on 31 January 1868, the son of Robert Segar, a journeyman baker, and his wife, Sarah Liddy (née Hughes). He was educated at Liverpool Collegiate Institution. At 16 years of age he was first in pure mathematics, applied mathematics and science in the Cambridge Senior Local Examinations. He declined a sizarship to St John's College, Cambridge, in favour of staying longer at school, but later proceeded on a scholarship to Trinity College. He was the second wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1890, and received one of the two Smith's prizes of 1892. Between 1890 and 1893 he published 16 papers on determinants and related items of algebra, and graduated MA in 1896.

In 1893 Segar took up a lectureship at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. The following year he was appointed to the chair of mathematics at Auckland University College, and travelled to New Zealand to take up the post. He married Elise Frederica Scherff at Auckland on 16 January 1895; they were to have two sons and two daughters.

For almost 40 years Segar taught pure and applied mathematics to honours level. His seemingly cold manner belied a real kindness and geniality; he was reserved to the point of shyness and spoke in a monotone which was reputed to leave his classes drowsy. His heavy teaching load – he was the sole teacher in his courses – and the lack of sabbatical leave and mathematical journals meant that his research suffered: a long paper on transcendental functions, begun in Britain, was left unfinished. In the period 1900–1908, however, he published 12 papers (mainly on economics and statistics) in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. He retired from teaching in 1933.

Committee work occupied much of Segar's time. He served on the Senate of the University of New Zealand from 1914 until 1934 and was a member of the Auckland University College Council from 1913 to 1929. He was regarded as being a man of integrity, calm judgement and unruffled temperament who did not shirk difficult or unpleasant tasks, and he provided a cohesive force in university committees which were often subjected to serious tensions. Segar was one of the few professors to give strong support to the college during the wrangle over its proposed use of the site of the old Government House.

Segar was active in both the Workers' Educational Association and the Auckland Institute and Museum (on whose council he served from 1900 until 1953). He gave numerous public lectures on a variety of applications of mathematics, his most popular ones being on astronomy. For many years he contributed articles to the New Zealand Herald on economics and astronomy. He was a clear exponent of his ideas and a formidable controversialist. In 1919 he was elected an original fellow of the New Zealand Institute and in 1912 and from 1931 to 1933 was its president. He was also active on the Committee of Advice of the Auckland Training College, the Auckland Grammar School Board, the Dilworth Trust Board and the Auckland City Council Library Committee. He was vice president of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand (1930–31) and president of the Rotary Club of Auckland (1923–24). An Anglican, he served as a governor of St John's College from 1908 to 1910. He served as chairman of the board of directors of three companies.

Of short to medium height and stocky build, Segar was a keen sports player and administrator. He had represented Liverpool Schools at rugby, was president of the Auckland University College Football Club for many years, and vice president of the Auckland Rugby Football Union. He played tennis regularly until over 70 years of age and was president of the Parnell Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club and the Remuera Bowling Club (1938–39). He also took a keen interest in music.

Elise Segar died on 25 August 1949; Hugh Segar died at Auckland on 18 September 1954. Science and education in Auckland were greatly indebted to his long service in university and public affairs.