Sir Michael James Lighthill FRS (1924-1998) was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th Century and a pioneer in several areas of fluid dynamics.

He won a scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge at the age of 15 and published his first paper, on the theory of supersonic aerofoils, a year after graduating; he was elected to the Royal Society at age 29, and many other honours followed. His first appointment was to the Aerodynamics Division of the National Physical Laboratory; after the war he was elected a fellow of Trinity College, and then moved to the University of Manchester, where he became Beyer Professor of Applied Mathematics.

In 1959 he was made Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. Subsequently he became Royal Society Research Professor at Imperial College London, where he founded the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. In 1969 he followed Paul Dirac as the holder of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge; his final post before retirement was Provost of University College London.

Whilst at Manchester, Lighthill launched the new fields of aero-acoustics and non-linear acoustics; applications range from methods for reducing jet engine noise to the use of ultrasound to destroy kidney stones. He also published a book entitled “An Introduction to Fourier Analysis and Generalised Functions,” which is probably his best-known contribution to mathematical methods.

At Imperial, he made major contributions to the new field of biofluid dynamics, investigating areas as diverse as the fluid dynamics of swimming animals and blood flow in arteries. In addition to his own work he was instrumental in persuading Imperial to establish the Physiological Flow Studies Unit, a pioneer in the multidisciplinary study of cardiovascular and respiratory flows and a forebear of the current Department of Bioengineering, under the Directorship of Colin Caro. Lighthill’s subsequent work on waves was arguably his most important; it is used in many fields of study, from oceanography to the study of road traffic.

His mathematical interests were also applied to his hobby – open-water swimming – where he developed new swimming strokes and intensely studied waves and currents before completing, for example, the first swim around Sark, one of the Channel Islands.

At Cambridge, Lighthill met Nancy Dumaresq, a fellow mathematician and amateur musician; they were married in 1945. Their daughter Pamela, one of four children, has kindly consented to the use of the family name to honour this lecture series, which recognises James Lighthill’s seminal contributions and productive association with Imperial College.