John Leroy Kelley


Born: 6 December 1916 in Merriam near Kansas City, Kansas, USA
Died: 26 November 1999 in Oakland, California, USA

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John Kelley's parents were Charles G Kelley (1873-1968) and Estella F Hogan (1886-1977). Charles Kelley is described as a "minister" in the 1920 census, and a "travelling salesman in groceries" in the 1930 census. Estella was a school teacher. Charles and Estella Kelley, both from Missouri, were married on 2 June 1910 in Winona, Shannon, Missouri. They had four children: Paul Kelley (born about 1912 in Missouri), Lois E Kelley (born about 1915 in Colorado), John Leroy Kelley, the subject of this biography born in Kansas in 1916, and Charles R Kelley, born 22 September 1922 in Oklahoma. We note that, at times, the family used one or other of their two given names, e.g. Paul Kelley appears in this form in the 1930 census but as Archie P Kelley in 1920. John Kelley appears as John L Kelley in 1920 but as Leroy Kelley in 1930. Kelley writes (see [9] or [10]):-
For the first thirteen years of my life my family was not urban, nor suburban, but just country. We lived in small towns, the largest with fewer than 2500 inhabitants: the roads were unpaved, we had no radio and television hadn't been invented. I was born in my family's house (there was no hospital in town) ... I was a genuine, twenty-four-carat country boy, a vanishing breed in these United States.
In 1920 the family were living in Cedar Street, Lincoln, Kansas. Later they moved to Meno, Oklahoma where Kelley began his schooling (see [9] or [10]):-
My schooling began in Meno, Oklahoma, which was then a village of a few hundred people, two churches, one general store, a blacksmith's and a one-room school. There were no electricity and the town centre was marked by a couple of hundred feet of boardwalk on one side of the road. I went to school at a very early age because my mother was the school teacher and there weren't any babysitters. I remember my first day at school; I got spanked. There were about thirty students in the school, spread over the first eight grades. ... The arithmetic I was taught by my mother during the two years in Meno ...
For more details of his school experiences, see THIS LINK.

Leaving Meno, the family moved to four or five other small towns and, by the time of the 1930 census, they were living in High Land Village, Gunnison, Colorado. The state legislature in Colorado passed a law preventing married women from being teachers (an attempt to help with the high unemployment of the Great Depression) and this was one of the reasons the family moved from Colorado to Los Angles, California, later in 1930. Kelley's final year of high school was in Los Angles. At school, he had loved mathematics, physics and art. At some stage he had felt that he wanted to be a mathematician, or an artist, or a physicist. By the time he left high school and entered Los Angeles Junior College in 1931 he had decided to specialise in physics. He spent two years at the College, taking four semesters of physics but also taking the required mathematics courses: Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, Trigonometry, and Analytic Geometry. Experimental work in physics laboratories had not gone particularly well so by the time he left the College and entered the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1933 he aimed to major in mathematics.

Of course 1933 was in the middle of the Great Depression and so anyone beginning a university course at this time would have thought seriously about possible careers. Deciding that his best option was to become a mathematics teacher, he took an education course in each of his first three semesters. He took a part-time job as a school parking attendant to bring in some badly needed money although he was delighted with his good fortune in receiving free education in the California system. He took all the geometry courses that were on offer, mostly given by Paul H Daus (1894-1973). Daus had studied at the University of Chicago where he met Derrick N Lehmer who became his Ph.D. advisor after he moved to the University of California at Berkeley. Daus had been awarded a Ph.D. for his thesis Normal Ternary Continued Fraction Expansions for the Cube Roots of Integers (1921). He was appointed to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1922 where he worked for the rest of his career. Although he wrote his Ph.D. on number theory, Daus was mainly interested in geometry and taught the geometry courses that Kelley attended. Earle Raymond Hedrick was the chair of the mathematics department at this time and Kelley attended courses that Hedrick taught, admiring his "flamboyant lecturing style." Kelley gave up the idea of being a high school teacher, dropped education courses, and concentrated on mathematics. His abilities were clear to the department and he was given a part-time job in the mathematics office in place of his work as a school parking attendant.

With the idea now of becoming a mathematics lecturer, Kelley took advice on giving mathematics instruction from William Marvin Whyburn. W M Whyburn had been at the University of Texas where he had learnt about the R L Moore method of instruction. Appointed to the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1928, he was able to give Kelley valuable advice on how to teach. Kelley graduated in 1936 and was appointed as a teaching assistant but W M Whyburn told him that to progress he required a Ph.D. The University of California, Los Angeles, had no doctoral programme at this time so in 1937 he went to the University of Virginia where W M Whyburn had arranged a teaching assistant position for him. The reason for choosing the University of Virginia will become clear once we explain that W M Whyburn's younger brother, Gordon Thomas Whyburn, had accepted an appointment as professor and chairman of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Virginia in 1934. G T Whyburn became Kelley's Ph.D. advisor.

Research at the University of Virginia went well for Kelley and by 1939 he had two papers in print, namely Fixed sets under homeomorphisms and A metric connected with property S. The second of these two papers, submitted to the American Journal of Mathematics in September 1938, answered a question posed by G T Whyburn in a paper published in 1932. Kelley was awarded a Ph.D. in June 1940 for his thesis A Study of Hyperspaces. He explains in [9] or [10] about the help in writing it he received:-

In 1940 I wrote a thesis, Whyburn made me revise it, McShane made me revise it again, and Hedlund said he'd revise except it was too late in the year. So it was accepted and then Sammy Eilenberg spent a couple of weeks revising and making me revise. This training, with a post-doctoral bit from Paul Halmos a few years later, is how I learned to write mathematics.
Let us briefly explain who these mathematicians were. Whyburn was his thesis advisor Gordon Thomas Whyburn. McShane was Edward James McShane who had been appointed to a professorship at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1935. Hedlund was Gustav Arnold Hedlund (1904-1993) who taught at the University of Virginia from 1939 to 1948. Samuel Eilenberg left Poland and arrived in the United States in 1939. He was appointed to the University of Michigan in 1940 and met Kelley at a topology conference held at the University of Michigan 24 June to 6 July 1940. Following the award of his Ph.D., Kelley took up an appointment at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He lived at South Bend, St Joseph, Indiana.

Let us record at this point that Kelley had married Elizabeth Chappell on 9th May, 1938 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His wife was always known as Nancy and they had three children, John L Kelley (2nd) (born 27 July 1940), Charles B Kelley (born 19 December 1946) and Robert P Kelley. On 16 October 1940 Kelley registered for the draft. His personal details were as follows: Employer - University of Notre Dame; Weight - 150 lbs; Complexion - Light; Eye Colour - Hazel; Hair Colour -Brown; Height: 5 ft 10 ins; Next of Kin - Nancy Kelley.

World War II had broken out on 1 September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany. Soon much of Europe was engaged in the war but at this stage the United States remained neutral. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, however, saw the United States enter the war [3]:-

After the U.S. entered World War II, E J McShane became head of the theory section of the Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland. He summoned Kelley to join his group, arranging for Kelley to be released from his teaching job at Notre Dame. Kelley spent the rest of the war in Aberdeen, where he wrote his first book, 'Exterior Ballistics' (1953), co-authored with McShane and Franklin V Reno.
The authors wrote in the Preface on 12 July 1949:-
As a rule the authors of a scientific book presumably hope that it will prove useful. The authors of this book wish devoutly that it will turn out to be quite useless, and that the application of exterior ballistics, with lethal intent, may cease. Nevertheless it is clear that armies will mass and nations stand in readiness for war until "Homo sapiens" succeeds in better deserving his self-bestowed name. While this endures, there must be many who know something about the flight of projectiles, and a few who know much about it. For these, this book is written. To the optimist who feels that this book is pointless because there will never be another war we can say only that we hope he is right. To the pessimist who feels that this book is pointless because the next war will be fought with weapons of such wide destructive power that it matters little where they are delivered, we would say that few weapons indeed, having once been useful, have been entirely discarded. The battle-axe survived in the hatchet of the commandos; the spear survived in the bayonet and even sticks and stones killed many in the first days of the independence of India. If there is another war, we may feel reasonably sure that guns, bombs and rockets will not be useless.
By March 1952 the authors say that their views have not changed "save for the abandonment of the wisp of optimism."

At the end of the war, Kelley moved to the University of Chicago but Oswald Veblen arranged that he could spend time at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. It was agreed that his salary was split between the University of Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Study. Kelley was at the Institute from September 1945 until June 1946. Back in Chicago, Kelley found the 1946-47 seminar very stimulating and he wrote (see [9] or [10]):-

The Chicago seminar had a decisive effect on the direction of my work.
Despite enjoying the University of Chicago, when Kelley was approached by the University of California at Berkeley to accept a position there as Associate Professor he was persuaded. He arrived in Berkeley in 1947, describing the mathematics department at the time as follows (see [9] or [10]):-
... very strong in analysis, statistics, set theory and the foundations of mathematics, and not strong in other areas. It was a harmonious group, although there was a bit of jealousy of the statisticians because they could get consulting money and were generally a little more prosperous than the rest of us (something like the computing science people today). But this was temporary; statistics emigrated to become a separate department sometime in 1949.
The time when Kelley was beginning his career at Berkeley coincided with heightened fears of Communism in the United States. This began in 1947 when President Truman gave an order that federal employees had to be screened for possible associations with Communist and other organisations. The University of California decided that it would require all staff to sign an oath declaring they had never been members of the Communist Party. Some staff refused to sign, including Kelley, and all those were made to appear before the Committee on Privilege and Tenure which, in June 1950, recommended that all but five should continue in employment. Kelley was one of the five to be fired. The Regents, however, after considering the report of the Committee on Privilege and Tenure, decided to give all who had not signed 30 days in which to do so, and then fired all those who refused to sign. He wrote (see [9] or [10]):-
I hit the panic button and wrote Veblen, Whyburn, McShane, Lefschetz and a couple of others. It was June, I had a wife and three children and just two months' salary in sight.
Kelley had never been a member of the Communist Party, but he still refused to sign. He wrote (see [9] or [10]):-
The Regents' problem with us non-signers wasn't communism; it was insubordination. ... at that time I did consulting work for Aberdeen Proving Ground, Redstone Arsenal, Sandia Corporation, and Los Alamos and was cleared for highly classified material. I see no way that the Berkeley administration and the Committee on Privilege and Tenure could have failed to know this; the problem with me was that I wouldn't say I wasn't a communist.
He was able to get a temporary position at Tulane University during 1950-52. Here he completed writing the book for which he is best known, namely General Topology which was published in 1955.

For the Preface and Acknowledgements from General Topology see THIS LINK.

For extracts from reviews of Kelley's books (including General Topology), see THIS LINK.

He gave the course 'Topics in Modern Algebra' at Tulane which was attended by Isaac Namioka who writes [14]:-

I was immediately captivated by Kelley's teaching style and the subject matter. Everything was new and exiting. The general topology segment was based on Kelley's manuscript of the now classic book on the subject and was very polished. The class was conducted on a modified "Moore method": the proofs of most theorems are left to the "tender mercies" of the students, but for difficult ones such as Urysohn's lemma and Tychonoff's theorem the proofs were given in full. We students were fortunate that Kelley's book was not available then, for we had to work very hard to do all the assigned proofs on our own. I learned a lot about mathematical presentation. He would patiently listen to my clumsy proof and awful notation, and at the end, with a twitching smile, he would suggest some changes which suddenly made everything clearer and often shorter.
Following his temporary position at Tulane University, Kelley spent the year 1952-53 at the University of Kansas. During this year he organised a group of mathematicians to collaborate on writing the book Linear topological spaces. In fact there are ten authors listed in the book:-
... who happened to agree (in 1953) on how to arrange the theory of topological linear spaces in such a way as to make the more recent (at that time) results on duality appear as the natural consequences of the preliminary work.
For an extract from the Foreword of the book and extracts from reviews, see THIS LINK.

Towards the end of 1952, the California Supreme Court declared the University of California oath unconstitutional and also declared that those who had been fired should be rehired. Kelley was back at Berkeley for the beginning of session 1953-54.

The influence of Kelley on the development of the Mathematics Department at Berkeley is described in [3]:-

Kelley returned to Berkeley in 1953 as a Postdoctoral Fellow of the National Science Foundation. His years of service in administration began in 1955-57, when he was successively Vice Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Administrative Assistant to the Chancellor. Kelley chaired the Mathematics Department during 1957-60, initiating revolutionary changes in both curriculum and composition of the faculty. He led the faculty to discard several traditional courses for beginning students, adopting calculus as the starting course of the undergraduate curriculum. Upper-division courses were arranged in areas from which math majors met breadth and depth requirements. Simultaneously, he reorganized the teaching of calculus so that every student attended lectures by a professor and discussion sections with a tutorial assistant, whereas formerly only 10% of the students saw the professor while 90% saw only a tutorial assistant. When Kelley became chair, Berkeley's Department of Mathematics was among the leaders in the areas of analysis and logic-foundations, but it recognized the need to build in other areas, notably geometry-topology and algebra. Efforts of previous chairs to lure prominent scholars in our weaker areas had been unsuccessful, in part because people in those areas feared being isolated on the West Coast. Kelley had the brilliant idea of trying to hire senior faculty members two-at-a-time. In 1958 he managed to persuade algebraists Gerhard Hochschild and Maxwell Rosenlicht to accept offers. Later the same strategy worked to bring geometer Shiing-Shen Chern and topologist Edwin Spanier. With those big names on board it was easy to attract young scholars and graduate students in their areas. From 1970 on, the department has been in the top two in national rankings.
Around 1962, Kelley married to Ying Lee (born in Shanghai in 1932) who grew up in China and Hong Kong, and in the 1970s became the first Asian American elected to the Berkeley City Council. Both Kelley and his wife supported students who demonstrated about issues such as free speech, the Vietnam War and divesting the university's South African funds. Both Kelley and Ying Lee were arrested during the protests.

Some additional activities of Kelley are described in [16]:-

Kelley served on the Council of the American Mathematical Society and on The Board of Governors of the Mathematical Association of America. He was a Fulbright Research Professor at Cambridge, England, from 1957 to 1958 and accepted an Agency for International Development appointment as adviser and teacher at The Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India, from 1964 to 1965.
For his year as Fulbright Research Professor, Kelley, his wife Nancy, and their three sons, sailed on the Duivendijk to Liverpool, England, arriving on 24 October 1957 to spend an academic year at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Other activities we should note are involved with the School Mathematics Study Group which was designing new mathematical texts for high schools. Kelley wrote two such texts, see extracts from reviews of the books at THIS LINK.

Related to this work on developing a new school mathematics curriculum was his television appearances [3]:-

In 1960 he took an extended leave to serve as the National Teacher on NBC's 'Continental Classroom' TV program. His tweed jackets, with pipe ready to be puffed in the close-ups, helped instil confidence among viewers who might have been taken aback by the new ways of teaching he promoted.
Kelley retired in 1985 but he did not give up mathematical research, continuing to collaborate with T P Srinivasan. He remained active up to the his final months [3]:-
In May 1999, a friend brought him to the annual department dinner where he visited with old colleagues not seen for years. In October he came to a two-day conference on campus to commemorate the battle over the Loyalty Oath 50 years before, and in November he passed away. ... Besides his accomplishments in mathematics and education, Kelley will be remembered for the twinkle in his eyes, for his infectious smile, and for his warm manner, which made everyone feel comfortable in his presence. But perhaps most he will be remembered as a man of deep principles, born of the injustices he witnessed during the Great Depression, and borne staunchly throughout his life.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (17 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor
  1. Reviews of John L Kelley's books
  2. General Topology by John L Kelley
  3. John L Kelley: Once over lightly

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. MathSciNet Author profile
  3. zbMATH entry
  4. ERAM Jahrbuch entry


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