Commission on the History of Mathematics

A Brief History of the International Commission
on the History of Mathematics (ICHM)

The idea of creating an International Commission on the History of Mathematics was first discussed in Paris in 1968 at the 12th International Congress of History of Science. On that occasion, it was resolved that a Ken May subcommittee—with Kenneth O. May (photo at right) as its provisional Chair—be formed to report back to the Division of the History of Science of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS) at the 13th International Congress that would be held in Moscow four years later in 1971. That subcommittee did report, and the result was the official creation of the ICHM. May (United States but, after 1973, Canada) was appointed the first Chair of the ICHM's Executive Committee (EC) with Sergei Demidov (Soviet Union) as Vice Chair, Pierre Dugac (France) as Secretary, and Kurt-R. Biermann (East Germany), G. J. Whitrow (United Kingdom), and (soon thereafter) Shuntaro Ito (Japan) as members-at-large.

True to May's vision that the ICHM serve to unite historians of mathematics internationally in common cause, a newsletter, Notae de Historia Mathematica, began in 1971 and continued until 1973; a World Directory of Historians of Mathematics was published in 1972; and an international research journal, Historia Mathematica, with May as its first Editor, was launched in 1974 as a key scholarly vehicle for the international community of historians of mathematics. The ICHM itself also expanded in its earliest years under May's leadership, joining members from twenty-seven countries by 1973. Today, that number has grown to almost sixty.

After May's death in 1977, the goals he had established for the ICHM were actively pursued by the EC's second Chair, Christoph J. Scriba (West Germany). In particular, Scriba oversaw the publication of the second World Directory of Historians of Mathematics (1978) and the successful editorial transition of the ICHM's journal, Historia Mathematica. Joseph W. Dauben (United States) succeeded May as Editor and, with the help of Esther Phillips as Managing Editor, worked toward the journal's continued growth and ultimately its evolution, in conjunction with its publisher Academic Press, Inc., from a photo-reproduced into a typeset format. Scriba also realized another of May's objectives for the ICHM, namely, the organization of ICHM-sponsored symposia in connection with meetings of the International Congress of History of Science (ICHS). On the occasion of the 16th ICHS held in Bucharest in 1981, the ICHM sponsored its first such series of lectures, commemorating the scientific work of the nineteenth-century French mathematician, Simeon-Denis Poisson (1781-1840). During Scriba's two terms as Chair of the EC, the ICHM also sponsored a summer workshop on the history of mathematics at the University of Toronto in 1983 and a symposium on the "Transmission of Mathematical Science" at the 17th ICHS held in Berkeley in 1985. Finally, it was under Scriba's guidance that the ICHM became an inter-union commission of both the IUHPS and the International Mathematical Union. This development, which occurred in 1985, underscores the close connections that historians of mathematics enjoy and foster both with historians of science and with mathematicians.

Scriba was succeeded as Chair of the EC in 1985 by Joseph W. Dauben, and Eberhard Knobloch (West Germany) replaced Dauben as Editor of Historia Mathematica with David E. Rowe (United States) as Managing Editor. As the EC's Chair through 1994, Dauben not only worked to assure that the activities institutionalized by his predecessors were sustained but also expanded the ICHM's visibility. In 1989, the first Kenneth O. May Prize was awarded by the ICHM to Dirk J. Struik (United States) and Adolf P. Yushkevich (Soviet Union) for "outstanding contributions to the history of mathematics." With the founding of this prize, the ICHM not only honored May's memory and his legacy to the history of mathematics as an international endeavor but also highlighted and rewarded exemplary scholarly contributions to the field. By 1993, the ICHM had also commissioned the design and casting of a bronze Kenneth O. May Medal further to commemorate May and to celebrate research in the history of mathematics; the second Kenneth O. May Prize (and Medal) was awarded to Christoph J. Scriba and Hans Wussing (East Germany) at the 19th ICHS held in Zaragoza, Spain in 1993. Dauben's terms as Chair of the EC also witnessed another editorial transition of Historia Mathematica in 1994 to Rowe as Editor and Karen Hunger Parshall (United States) as Managing Editor. Perhaps the most far-reaching event of Dauben's years at the head of the EC, however, was his coordination of a major scholarly publication project on behalf of the ICHM, namely, the collection of essays that would eventually appear as Joseph W. Dauben and Christoph J. Scriba, ed., Writing the History of Mathematics: Its Historical Development (Basel: Birkhauser Verlag, 2002). This massive study united over forty historians of mathematics internationally in a single scholarly effort to trace the historical development of the history of mathematics both as a field and as a body of knowledge. It represents a significant testimonial to the fact that May's vision for international cooperation within the field of the history of mathematics has indeed been realized.

Subsequent Chairs of the EC and Editors of Historia Mathematica have continued to build on the firm foundation established by May, Scriba, Dauben, and all of those who worked with them in the first two decades of the ICHM's history. Today, the ICHM continues to maintain a World Directory of Historians of Mathematics, although now in an electronic format, soon to be made available at It also continues to sponsor symposia at international congresses both in the history of science and technology and in mathematics and has expanded its scholarly presence to a variety of other meetings around the world. The Kenneth O. May Prize and Medal was awarded for the fifth time at the ICHS in Beijing in 2005 to Henk Bos (The Netherlands). At the 23rd International Congress of History of Science and Technology in Budapest (Hungary, 2009), the Kenneth O. May Prize and Medal was awarded to Ivor Grattan-Guinness (UK) and Rhada Charan Gupta (India), and the First ICHM Montucla Prize to the author of the best article by a junior scholar published in Historia Mathematica in the four years preceding the Congress (2005-2008) was awarded to Henrik Kragh Sørensen (Denmark). In 2011, in the fortieth anniversary of ICHM, it is to be hoped that May would be gratified to see the community of historians of mathematics that the ICHM has played a role in uniting.

Chairs of the EC of the ICHM:

  • Kenneth O. May (United States but, after 1973, Canada), 1971–1977
  • Christoph J. Scriba (West Germany), 1977–1985
  • Joseph W. Dauben (United States), 1985–1993
  • Eberhard Knobloch (Germany), 1993–1997
  • Kirsti Andersen (Denmark), 1998–2001
  • Karen Hunger Parshall (United States), 2002–2009

Editors of Historia Mathematica:

  • Kenneth O. May (Canada), 1974–1977
  • Joseph W. Dauben (United States), 1977–1985
  • Eberhard Knobloch (Germany), 1985–1993
  • David E. Rowe (United States and Germany), 1993–1996
  • Karen Hunger Parshall (United States), 1996–2000
  • Craig Fraser (Canada) and Umberto Bottazzini (Italy), 2000–2004
  • Craig Fraser (Canada), 2004–2007
  • Benno van Dalen (The Netherlands/Germany), 2007–2009
  • June Barrow-Green (UK), 2009-2012