Alexander Aitken’s phenomenal memory was both his biggest asset and his greatest horror.
He was able to do complex maths in his head, recite Pi up to 707 places and is still considered one of the fastest lightning calculators in the world.
But because of his memory, he also couldn’t forget his wartime experiences.
Alexander Craig Aitken - called Alec, was born April 1, 1895 in Dunedin, the oldest of the seven children of Elizabeth Towers and William Aitken.
His grandfather had emigrated from Lanarkshire in Scotland in 1868.
Aitken freely admitted arithmetic bored him, and he wasn’t any good at it at school until suddenly at the age of 14 at Otago Boys’ High, something clicked when he had one of those teachers who inspire us.
He began practising mental calculation from memory, training himself.
He was the school dux and won the Thomas Baker Calculus Scholarship in his last year at school.
Aitken went on to the University of Otago but his studies were cut off when he enlisted in 1915 for the First World War. He left with the Sixth Regiment, Otago Infantry.
He saw a great deal of combat, serving at the Gallipoli landing, and in Egypt and then in the Battle of the Somme in France.
He often astounded his fellow soldiers with his memory, and when the platoon book was destroyed, he was able to recite the names and numbers of all the members of his platoon.
He was also remembered for playing the violin he had been gifted by a friend who won it in a raffle. Many nights in the muddy trenches he played.
It was at the Battle of the Somme that he was seriously wounded and spent three months in Chelsea before being invalided out.
He returned to New Zealand where he completed a degree at Otago then was briefly a teacher.
His next stop was the University of Edinburgh and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
His mathematical lectures were unusual. A bit of clear lecturing, five minutes of jokes and five minutes of tricks.
Aitken spent his entire career at Edinburgh working in statistics, numerical analysis and algebra - with a break during World War Two when he worked at Bletchley Park decrypting the Enigma Code.
In psychological tests in Britain he took thirty seconds to multiply 987,654,321 by 123,456,789 and produce the correct answer: 121,932,631,112,635,269.
Aitken married Mary Winifred Betts - herself astonishing as a lecturer in biology and the first female lecturer appointed at the Otago University. They had a son and daughter.
His skill at mental arithmetic was such he is still considered the greatest ever living lightning calculator.
An accomplished author he wrote a book, Gallipoli to the Somme - his wartime memoirs.
But he was never, thanks to his memory, never able to escape his memories of the war. They never faded for him like they did for some others.
His memory made his career but it also meant his wartime experiences haunted him for the rest of his life until his death in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 3, 1967, aged 72.
He was cremated at Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh.
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