Happy Birthday, Otto Neugebauer

Otto Neugebauer

Without Otto Neugebauer, there would be no MathSciNet.  He was the founder of both Zentralblatt für Mathematik (1931) and Mathematical Reviews (1940).   Neugebauer lived an extraordinary life during extraordinary times.  He knew and worked with some of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century.  Neugebauer also left an impressive legacy as a historian of mathematics, with a specialization in ancient mathematics.  And Neugebauer was born on May 26, 1899 in Innsbruck, Austria – so it is time to celebrate his life and his legacy. 

Otto Neugebauer’s family moved to Graz, Austria when he was still young.  He attended the Akademisches Gymnasium in Graz, where he studied the sciences and mathematics, but was also required to learn Greek and Latin.  He learned that he could graduate without passing the Greek exam if he joined the army, which he did in 1917.  After leaving the army in 1919, he entered the University of Graz to study electrical engineering and physics.  In 1921, he transferred to the University of Munich.  In the fall of 1922, he went to the Mathematical Institute at the University of Göttingen.  At the institute, he took courses from Richard Courant (the director), Edmund Landau, and Emmy Noether.  In 1923 he became an assistant at the institute.  In 1924, he became Courant’s special assistant.  In 1924, he went to the University of Copenhagen, where he worked with Harald Bohr.

By the time he came to write a thesis, Neugebauer’s interests had moved from mathematics to the history of mathematics. He completed his thesis in 1926, titled Die Grundlagen der ägyptischen Bruchrechnung (The foundations of Egyptian fractions), with Courant and Hilbert as his advisors.  In 1929, Neugebauer, with Otto Toeplitz and Julius Stenzel, founded the journal Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik Astronomie und Physik (Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics, Astronomy, and Physics).  Neugebauer’s interests expanded to Babylonian mathematics.  The man who once joined the army to avoid taking an exam in Greek by now had learned both Egyptian and Akkadian, the language of the ancient Babylonians.

In 1931, Neugebauer founded Zentralblatt für Mathematik und ihre Grenzgebiete.   In 1932, with Courant, he founded the book series Ergebnisse der Mathematik und ihrer Grenzgebiete.  In 1933, with Flügge, he founded Zentralblatt für Mechanik.

In 1933,  the National Socialists came to power in Germany.   As a liberal and internationally minded person, Neugebauer began having problems.  In the biography of Neugebauer for the National Academy of Science, Noel Swerdlow writes:

A Nazi official once requested that he [Neugebauer] explain why he was in Leningrad in 1928, since it might be thought he was secretly a  Bolshevik.  His answer was to point out that in 1930 he was at the Vatican, so perhaps they might suspect that he was secretly a Jesuit.

Harald Bohr arranged a position for Neugebauer at the University of Copenhagen.  For a time, he ran Zentralblatt  from Copenhagen, with it being published by Springer in Berlin.  In 1938, he began to be pressured to increase the number of reviews in German (and by Germans) in Zentralblatt.  By the end of the year, Levi-Civita had been removed from the editorial board.  Neugebauer was told that the work of German mathematicians should no longer be reviewed by “emigrants”.   In response, Neugebauer orchestrated a mass resignation of the editorial board, as well as the resignation of many of the reviewers.   Zentralblatt  continued to be published in a much reduced state until 1944, when it stopped publication altogether.  (It restarted in 1948 and is now zbMATH.)  There was still a need for a reviewing journal.

In the United States, mathematicians began working to establish an alternative reviewing journal.  Oswald Veblen1 was a major player in this attempt, and worked with leaders from the American Mathematical Society.  A plan was hatched to bring Neugebauer to Brown University as a professor in the Mathematics Department, with the intention that he would also found a new reviewing journal.  Neugebauer arrived in the United States in 1939.  The first issue of Mathematical Reviews was published in January 1940.  Neugebauer soon passed the editorship to Jacob Tamarkin,  and continued his own extensive research on the history of mathematics and astronomy.  In 1947, he established the History of Mathematics Department at Brown University, building it into a powerhouse of research in the history of science.  Notable members included Abraham Sachs, Richard Parker, Gerald Toomer, and David Pingree.

A story that Ralph Boas (and others) enjoyed telling was of a mathematician who complained that Neugebauer had written in English instead of Neugebauer’s own “mother tongue.” Neugebauer replied that it was not a question of Neugebauer’s mother’s language, but of his secretary’s.  Neugebauer went on to point out that while he was editor of Zentralblatt, no American mathematician had asked him to use English.

The European Mathematical Society has established the Otto Neugebauer Prize in the history of mathematics.  The prize was first awarded in 2012 at the Sixth European Congress of Mathematicians in Krakow to Jan P. Hogendijk, who has published 145 reviews in MathSciNet, from 1993 to the present. The next prize will be awarded July 18-22, 2016 in Berlin during the Seventh European Congress of Mathematicians.

I strongly recommend that you find out more about Otto Neugebauer.  He lived a remarkable life.   Here are some suggestions for further reading:


(1) Veblen was a “Princeton man”.  The colors for the cover of the printed Mathematical Reviews were orange and black, the traditional colors of Princeton University.

About Edward Dunne

I am the Executive Editor of Mathematical Reviews. Previously, I was an editor for the AMS Book Program for 17 years. Before working for the AMS, I had an academic career working at Rice University, Oxford University, and Oklahoma State University. In 1990-91, I worked for Springer-Verlag in Heidelberg. My Ph.D. is from Harvard. I received a world-class liberal arts education as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University.
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