Math and Anti-Semitism Went Hand-in-Hand at Harvard for Decades

'A History in Sum' Sheds Light on Disturbing Past

Math Problem: George Birkhoff was instrumental in preventing Jewish mathematicians from being hired at Harvard.
Courtesy of Harvard News Office
Math Problem: George Birkhoff was instrumental in preventing Jewish mathematicians from being hired at Harvard.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published January 11, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
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Birkhoff’s opinions had disastrous human consequences at a time when lives were at risk, and top scholars were desperate to flee fascist Europe with their families, but could not find American universities willing to hire them. Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze’s “Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany: Individual Fates and Global Impact” names 18 distinguished German-speaking Jewish mathematicians who were “murdered or driven to suicide by Nazis during the 1930s and 40s” and 72 more who were otherwise persecuted.

Einstein’s was not the only voice raised in protest. In his memoirs, Norbert Wiener, a Harvard student who would later have an eminent career at MIT (an institution also guilty of anti-Semitic hiring practices), declared that Birkhoff was “intolerant of possible rivals, and even more intolerant of possible Jewish rivals. He considered that the supposed early maturity of the Jews gave them an unfair advantage at the stage at which young mathematicians were looking for jobs, and he further considered that this advantage was particularly unfair, as he believed that the Jews lacked staying power.” Wiener further related that as he became more accomplished over the course of his studies at Harvard, he “became [Birkhoff’s] special antipathy, both as a Jew and, ultimately, as a possible rival.”

Paradoxically, Birkhoff was helpful in finding employment at other universities for a select few Jewish mathematicians such as Polish-born Stanislaw Ulam, Italy’s Tullio Levi-Civita, and France’s Jacques Hadamard. The Italian-American mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota noted in an essay, “Like other persons rumored to be anti-Semitic, [Birkhoff] would occasionally feel the urge to shower his protective instincts on some good-looking young Jew.”

Three years after Birkhoff died, a Jew was finally hired to teach mathematics at Harvard. Oscar Zariski (born Oscher Zaritsky in Dobrin, Russia) was an algebraic geometer of immense influence. Thereafter, Zariski attracted a number of gifted Jewish researchers to Harvard, such as Alexander Grothendieck (born in Germany in 1928 and currently living in France), a legendary innovator in algebraic geometry whose father was murdered at Auschwitz. “A History in Sum” rightly suggests that although times have changed at Harvard, sins of the past should never be forgotten. And in a curious twist of fate, a curve first described in Birkhoff’s research has been named posthumously in his honor — perhaps by some waggish researcher — as “Birkhoff’s Bagel,” so that posterity will forever link one of America’s most vehement mathematical anti-Semites with the deli counter.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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