Samuel Dickstein

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12 May 1851
Warsaw, Russian Empire (now Poland)
29 September 1939
Warsaw, Poland

Samuel Dickstein was a Polish mathematician whose work was mostly in algebra and the history of mathematics.


Samuel Dickstein was brought up during difficult years for Poles, most of whom aspired to see the country of Poland re-established. Poland did not formally exist at the time of Dickstein's birth and much of the pattern of his life was dominated by the aim of Poles to restore their country.

Poland had been partitioned in 1772 with the south was called Galicia and under Austrian control while Russia and Prussia controlled the rest of the country. In 1846, three years before Dickstein was born, there was an attempted revolution by Polish nationalists. The Prussian police had discovered their plans to start an uprising and they put a stop to it in their area. However the uprising spread to Galicia but there it was soon defeated by Austrian troops. During the following years when Dickstein was a young child Poles sought independence but were kept down by armed force.

The Crimean War which ended in 1856 had a great influence within the Russian Empire. Some reforms were put in place in the Russian areas of Poland (which included Warsaw where Dickstein lived) but these only seemed to invoke anger among young patriotic Poles. There were political demonstrations and, towards the end of 1862, riots broke out in Warsaw. On 22 January 1863 there was a move to force young Poles into the Russian army and a widespread rebellion took place. For a year Dickstein, a youth aged 12, saw the Polish uprising being crushed. The victorious Russian occupiers then carried out executions, confiscations, and deportations, and one can only imagine how a young man like Dickstein might have felt knowing that Poles could not hope to rule their own country again in the foreseeable future.

In a policy implemented between 1869 and 1874, all secondary schooling was in the Russian language. There was no Polish university for Dickstein to attend so, in 1866, he entered one of the only higher education establishments in Warsaw, the teacher's college. He studied there until 1869, the year in which it was converted into the Russian University of Warsaw . From 1870 to 1876 Dickstein attended this Russian university in Warsaw specialising in mathematics. He graduated with a Master's degree in 1876 but all the time he spent at university he held positions in secondary schools teaching mathematics to provide the means to support his studies.

With the education system controlled by the Russian rulers, Dickstein decided to do what he could to promote a Polish education and he directed his own private school for ten years beginning in 1878. However during this period he began other ventures to promote Polish science.

Dickstein was one of the main instigators of publishing mathematical journals in Poland. In 1884 he was one of the two founders of a series of mathematics and physics textbooks which were written in Polish. A few years later he was one of three scientists who set up the journal Mathematical and Physical Papers editing the journal from 1888. From 1897 he edited Mathematical News another publication which he was involved in setting up. He also continued publication of Circle of Polish Mathematicians which had begun publishing in St Petersburg in 1880. Kuratowski, thinking about the development of Polish mathematics, notes in [2] the importance of the publications:-
The establishment of "Mathematical and Physical Papers" and "Mathematical News" made possible for Polish mathematicians to publish the results of their research in Poland, and thus it favoured the increase of mathematical activity in our country ...
It was not only with his role in publishing that Dickstein made a major contribution to Polish mathematics. In 1903 Dickstein was a founder of the Warsaw Scientific Society and he was important in the development of the Polish Mathematical Society. These played a vital role in the development of Polish mathematics and we have described above the political situation out of which the Warsaw Scientific Society was born.

The first meeting of a group trying to set up a Polish institution in Warsaw took place on 21 December 1903. Dickstein was one of two mathematicians in this founding group of fourteen, and was elected as secretary of the group. The work of the Warsaw Scientific Society started properly in November 1907. A Mathematical Study was set up with Dickstein donating a fine library of mathematical texts.

World War I brought major changes in Poland. In August 1915 the Russian forces which had held Poland for many years withdrew from Warsaw. Germany and Austria-Hungary took control of most of the country and a German governor general was installed in Warsaw. One of the first moves after the Russian withdrawal was the refounding of the University of Warsaw and it began operating as a Polish university in November 1915. Dickstein taught in the newly established university, giving the first year lectures on algebra. He became a professor of mathematics at the University of Warsaw in 1919 when the university became properly constituted after the end of the war.

Dickstein's work was mostly in algebra and the history of mathematics. In particular he had written an important monograph on Wronski in 1896.

Kuratowski writes in [2] that Dickstein:-
... was not a scholar of outstanding creative achievements, and certainly his lectures presented a somewhat outdated algebra; they were, however, excellently shaped lectures by an enthusiast for mathematics, who infected young adepts in mathematics with his own ardour; this was by no means unimportant for the new staff of renascent Polish Science.

Ulam, at age 23, met Dickstein, who was then in his eighties, at the International Mathematical Congress in Zürich in 1932. He writes that Dickstein was:-
... wandering around looking for his contemporaries. Dickstein's teacher had been a student of Cauchy in the early nineteenth century, and he still considered Poincaré, who died in 1912, a bright young man. To me this was like going into the prehistory of mathematics and it filled me with a kind of philosophical awe.
Dickstein died in the Nazi bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and all his family died during the German occupation of Poland.

References (show)

  1. L Novy, Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York 1970-1990). See THIS LINK.
  2. K Kuratowski, Half a century of Polish mathematics (Warsaw, 1973).
  3. S Domoradzki, Samuel Dickstein (1851-1939) in the light of his correspondence with Wladyslaw Natanson and Marian Smoluchowski, Problems concerning science in Poland, Mathematics at the turn of the twentieth century (Katowice, 1992), 84-103.
  4. A Mostowski, La vie et l'oeuvre de Samuel Dickstein, Prace matematyczno-fizyczne 47 (1949), 5-12.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update February 2000