Bill Tutte was a chemist, mathematician and cryptographer. Fascinated by prime numbers from a young age, Bill’s interest in mathematics developed whilst a student of the natural sciences (specialising in chemistry) at Trinity College Cambridge.
During his time at Cambridge, Bill attended lectures of the Trinity Mathematical Society and his love of mathematics grew. Bill graduated in 1938 with First Class honours and continued in physical Chemistry as a graduate until 1940 when he transferred to mathematics.
In 1939, Britain had gone to war. The Government Code and Cypher School had relocated to Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire and there was a desire for mathematicians and problem solvers to feature amongst their recruits. Tutte’s tutor Patrick Duff arranged for Tutte to have an interview and in May 1941 he arrived at Bletchley Park.
Tutte was put to work in the research section, working on the Italian Naval Cipher and other unbroken ciphers before he was introduced to the Lorenz cipher, known to the Allies as Tunny. Lorenz was used by the German High Command to communicate top secret messages to field headquarters.
It was against this cipher that Tutte was to achieve “one of the greatest intellectual feats of World War Two”, by deducing the structure of the Lorenz cipher without ever having seen the machine (as cited when Bill became an Officer, Order of Canada in 2001). The breaking of Lorenz was significant because it provided the Allies with critical details of Hitler’s military strategy.
In 2012, the British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his personal thanks and the United Kingdom’s gratitude for Tutte’s contribution to the war: “We should never forget how lucky we were to have men like Professor Tutte in our darkest hour and the extent to which their work not only helped protect Britain itself but also shorten the war by an estimated two years, saving countless lives”.
After completing a PhD in Graph Theory, Bill moved to Canada. He taught first at the University of Toronto, followed by the University of Waterloo (Ontario), where he held the position of Professor of Combinatorics and Optimization. Bill was eminent in the field of combinatorics and was editor in Chief of the Journal of Combinatorial Theory from 1967 to 1985. Bill became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1958 and the Royal Society of the United Kingdom in 1987.