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A fine line between madness and genius

A fine line between madness and genius

Prof. John Ursell was a brilliant mathmatician and a gifted professor, but he was also a troubled man who struggled with mental health issues.

Letter to the Editor
Re: "John Ursell was a unique gentleman”
Issue #1-2010

I was saddened to hear of the death of Dr. John Ursell which I discovered only upon reading Scott McCoy’s letter. I had somehow missed the story itself in the previous issue, and so I looked it up online. I have thought about Prof. Ursell many times over the years.

I, too, studied math under Ursell, in two courses, in fact. It was in the early 1970s both before and during the time when he became debilitated by the tragedy of mental illness. When I first met him, Ursell was brilliant if eccentric and both gregarious and shy in equal measure. I came to know him a little and sometimes visited him for far-ranging and unpredictable chats in his office. It was incredibly cluttered (a hallmark of the brilliant/troubled mind perhaps) and featured a great deal of African aboriginal artwork and books on the same subject. If memory serves me correctly, this was because his mother was an expert in this area, and I believe he often helped her with her research and papers.

I personally remember that it was around the time of his mother's death that Ursell's descent into incapacitating mental illness became manifest. Perhaps the illness was always there, but the common wisdom around campus at that time was that his mother's death was a trigger. Ursell was a bachelor and his devotion to his mother was well known.

As his problems became more severe, he was unable to continue teaching. I was always impressed by how well the University continued to look after its own. Long after Ursell was unable to teach he continued to be on staff in the Math Department and kept his office in Jeffrey Hall. I continued at Queen's for another seven years and often saw Ursell on campus. He was frequently disheveled and appeared lost in his own world. Sometimes I avoided him, leaving him to his own thoughts, but would occasionally make the effort to interact with him. Sometimes my approaches were rebuffed, but there were times when he was very pleased to see me and—I found this remarkable—one time, without prompting, he was aware of some campus activity I was involved in.

I was very surprised and pleased to read the McCoy letter, which indicated that Ursell was able to undertake some teaching duties in the early 1980s if not later as well. I last saw him when I happened to be on campus in the late 1990s. He was dressed as always in grey flannel trousers and wrinkled white shirt.  I approached him but he did not seem to recognize me.

John Ursell was a tremendous teacher. His extraordinary enthusiasm was infectious and inspired a love of mathematics. His life is yet another example of the fine line between madness and genius. 

Larry Rossignol, Arts'75, Law '81
Tricolour Award 1978
Toronto, ON

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]