Commission on the History of Mathematics

Kenneth O. May

(1915 - December 1, 1977)

(Historia Mathematica 5 (1978), pp. 8-9)

Obituary by Christoph J. Scriba

Read on December 15, 1977 during a memorial meeting for Kenneth O. May at the University of Toronto.

With Professor Kenneth O. May, the world-wide community of historians of mathematics has lost a colleague who as none other helped to establish the history of mathematics as a discipline in its own right.

Developing a unique information storage and retrieval system, he compiled for the first time the comprehensive Bibliography and Research Manual, covering not a select period or area, but the whole wide field of mathematical history. After useful general advice on the organization of research, it contains voluminous bibliographies about mathematicians, mathematical topics, epimathematical topics, time periods, areal and local aspects, universities and organizations, historiography and, last but not least, the titles of relevant journals. Most historians of mathematics will now have this manual within easy reach on their desk.

It was nine years ago that, following an initiative of K. O. May, a Provisional Subcommission of the History of Mathematics was formed by the General Assembly at the XIIth International Congress of the History of Science in Paris. Three years later, in 1971, a permanent Commission on the History of Mathematics was established in Moscow. Unanimously Professor May was elected as its Chairman.

At that time he had already collected most of the information for the first World Directory of Historians of Mathematics (1972). Containing more than 500 names, it listed the major fields of interest of each individual. The subject index, which allows one to look up immediately who is working on a certain person or topic, is particularly useful for the profession. A second edition is now being prepared.

Of even greater impact and wider scope was Ken May's plan to found an international journal on the history of mathematics. Several specialized journals on the history of mathematics had existed around the turn of the century, but none had outlived the difficult times of World War I. In Nomember 1971, a first newsletter "Notae de Historia Mathematica" was sent out from Toronto, outlining the nature of the proposal in the following words:

This journal will be an international journal open to all historians, all points of view, and all approaches to the history of mathematics. It will serve as the professional journal of historians of mathematics, facilitating communication among themselves and with mathematicians, historians of science, teachers and others interested in their work. It will deal with the history of all aspects of mathematics, including biography, education, philosophy, applications, organizations, institutions, methodology, historiographty, relations with other sciences, technology and general history, but not including the history of related fields such as physics.

In February 1974 the first issue was published, with Ken as editor. Within a very short time, he had achieved what to many of us seemed impossible: not only had the journal been brought into existence by him, but as the first issue went to press he had already campaigned about 700 subscribers from 39 countries. Within three years, the number of subscribers had doubled.

In his editorial to vol. 3 [1976] we read the following prophetic lines of our deceased colleague:

The distinguished predecessors of HM were associated with their founders and died with them. If HM is to avoid this fate, we must prepare and carry through a prompt transfer of editorial responsibility to younger hands.

Ken May must have realized the precarious state of his health, and during the past two years he took care that responsibility and editorial work of the journal was passed over to younger colleagues. At the XVth International Congress in Edinburgh, last August, he even gave up the chairmanship of the International Commission on the History of Mathematics.

He once said to me: "You must think that I am a great organizer. Well, you know, I am. There are schemes I want to realize since I think the times are ready for them." His dream was that of a world community of historians of mathematics working together unanimously regardless of race, political conviction or other non-scientific barriers. The International Commission in his opinion is to be the common House of Learning for all historians of mathematics, in which there is room for everybody doing serious research. And his journal (though in his modesty he would never have said "my journal") is to be the principal means of communication between all scholars of the profession and with mathematicians, teachers, historians, and others interested in their work. As such it will continue as a living tribute to its unpretentious and yet energetic founder and first editor.

We, who participated at Edinburgh in the meeting of the ICHM—he chaired it in his usual informal, leisurely and nevertheless determined way—did not foresee that it was to be the last meeting he would attend. Like a good house-father he had prepared his children, the Commission and the Journal, for the time in which he would not be able to look after them any more. That time now has come all too soon.

We have lost more than a deserving colleague; we have lost a good friend.