International Commission on the History of Mathematics

Annual Meeting of the History of Science Society (USA)
Pittsburgh, PA, 6-9 November, 2008

ICHM Co-Sponsored Session on
"Case Studies in the Internationalization of Mathematics: Goals, Strategies, and Outcomes in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries"
Saturday, 8 November, 2008

By Karen V. H. Parshall

Mathematics has a history both grounded in time and place and, to some extent, transcendent of time and place. As an area of inquiry—but more fundamentally as a language through which to interpret nature—it has the ability to transcend time and place, even though for given time periods it may make sense to speak at least loosely of Mesopotamian or Greek or medieval Islamic or Chinese or European mathematics. Over the course of the nineteenth and through the twentieth century, mathematics became not only a language but also an endeavor shared and developed internationally.

This transformation occurred in the context of broader political and social movements, such as the emergence in Europe of the nation-state in the late nineteenth century, western missionary activities in China, and the Cold War. In some cases, communities of mathematicians had the internationalization of their discipline as a particular goal; in other cases, it was a by-product of other activities.

Papers in this session examined four cases in which the practice of mathematics occurred across national boundaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They explored a range of goals the mathematicians had in mind, the different strategies they employed, and the various changes to both the discipline and its communities that resulted from international exchanges.




From left to right: Joe Dauben, Karen Parshall, David Zitarelli, Patti Hunter, and Deborah Kent.


"The Internationalization of Mathematics in a World of Nations: 1800–1960"

Karen Parshall, University of Virginia (USA)

Abstract: Over the course of the nineteenth and through the twentieth century, mathematics became not only a language but also an endeavor shared and developed internationally. This transformation occurred as the construct of the nation-state began to result in a new geopolitical reality, that is, as emerging states increasingly embraced the cultural standards of those states with which they hoped to compete effectively. Relative to the case of mathematics, these shared cultural standards centered on educational ideals, on the desire to build viable and productive professional communities with effective means of communication, and on the increasing conviction that personal and national reputation was established in an international arena. Other components key to this transformation included the self-conscious internationalization of journals and the institutionalization of the International Congresses of Mathematicians (ICMs) for the direct communication of mathematical results and research agendas in the opening decades of the twentieth century. This talk traced this evolution broadly in the context of the social history of mathematics in intertwining national contexts.

Western Mathematics in the Middle Kingdom: Elite versus Grass Roots Strategies"

Joseph Dauben, City University of New York (USA),/p>

When Western science was first introduced to China in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, it was largely through efforts of the Jesuits and other Catholic orders. Figures like Matteo Ricci targeted the elite of the imperial court and high administrative officials, believing that if they could convince them of the superiority of western science, the superiority of western religion would follow, and to some extent they were successful in this venture until the rites controversy eventually resulted in a prohibition by the emperor Kang Xi in 1721 of any further missionary activity in China. When western missionaries returned in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was largely Protestants who sought to convert the populace at large, and they did so by establishing schools and writing textbooks, some offering systematic introductions to the sciences, including mathematics. This presentation will focus on the specific examples that history of mathematics in China can offer to explain how these different strategies affected the development of a new and revitalized indigenous mathematics in modern China. Its basic argument is that the "grass roots" approach was crucial to the creation of a new class, literally, of Chinese mathematicians who would help spearhead the transformation of Chinese society, largely through education and the emergence of a professionalized cadre of mathematicians that could never have been achieved through an "elite" approach to the subject.

Mathematics at World's Fairs: Chicago 1893 and St. Louis 1904

David Zitarelli, Temple University (USA)

World's Fairs held at Chicago in 1893 and St. Louis in 1904 borrowed the idea of sponsoring an academic congress from the Paris World's Fair of 1889. Each of the American congresses contained a mathematics component in spite of the country's backwater status at the time. This talk compared various aspects of the international nature of these congresses, including the invited speakers, their addresses, additional activities (notably displays of physical models), prior arrangements and post-congress tours, and enduring legacy. It argued that the Chicago Congress had a substantially greater influence on the development of mathematics in the U.S. in spite of the greater role played by the emerging American Mathematical Society at the St. Louis Congress and the more impressive attendance of notable American researchers. It also maintained that the legacy of Felix Klein from the 1893 Congress exceeded that of Henri Poincaré from the 1904 Congress even though the latter delivered an important paper on relativity.

"Gertrude Cox in Africa: A Case Study in Science Patronage and International Statistics Education in the Cold War"

Patti Hunter, Westmont College (USA)

Gertrude M. Cox (1900–1978), first chair of North Carolina State University's Department of Experimental Statistics, worked in the 1960s to establish university statistics training programs in Africa and the Middle East. As a member of the governing board of the International Statistical Institute (ISI), she led that organization's efforts to supply universities in so-called developing countries with prominent statisticians who could advise the universities as they created their own programs. Cox obtained some of the financial resources for these efforts from the United Nations, from agencies of the United States government, and from major American philanthropic foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller, each of which had its own agendas. This talk provided examples of transnational scientific exchanges that had as their specific goal the strengthening of particular national scientific communities, but which occurred in the context of other national and international agendas—in particular, the Cold War foreign policy of the United States and the UN's efforts to address issues of economic development. The talk argued that while the strategy of tying their goals to these other agendas enabled statisticians to obtain some resources for their efforts to strengthen their professional communities, it also limited their success by forcing them to take into account interests that competed with, or at least stood in tension with each other.

Deborah Kent of Hillsdale College (USA) served as the session chair. The session was organized by Karen Parshall and Patti Hunter.