Jekuthiel Ginsburg

Quick Info

15 September 1889
Lipniki, Volhynia, Russian Empire (now in Volyn Oblast, Ukraine)
7 October 1957
New York, USA

Jekuthiel Ginsburg was a Jewish-Polish mathematician whose career, in the first half of the 20th Century, was in the United States. A historian of mathematics, he is best known as the founder and first editor of the journal Scripta Mathematica.


Jekuthiel Ginsburg was the son of Hillel Arye Ginsburg and his wife Bella. He was born in the village of Lipniki which originally was part of Poland but, at the time the Ginsburg family lived there it was part of Russia, later it returned to Poland but the village is now Lipniki, Volyn, Ukraine. Hillel and Bella Ginsburg were married in 1888 when Bella was seventeen years old. The family were Jewish and spoke Yiddish, the language spoken by most Jews in the region in which they lived. Hillel and Bella Ginsburg had four children: Jekuthiel Ginsburg (1889-1957), the subject of this biography; Simon Ginsburg (1890-1944); Pessach Benjamin Ginsburg (1894-1947); and Haya Ginsburg (1896-1983). Let us note at this stage that, because family names have been transliterated into the Roman alphabet, several different versions appear. Jekuthiel Ginsburg's first name sometimes appears as Yekethial while the family surname appears as Ginzberg, Gintsburg or Ginzburg. In fact when Jekuthiel Ginsburg first entered the United States he gave his name as Efiel Ginzberg. We also note that there is quite a lot of incorrect information about the Ginsburg family on, perhaps due to the fact that it is a very common name and there are all these different spellings.

Jekuthiel Ginsburg received a traditional education in Lipniki, before emigrating to the United States with his brother Simon Ginsburg in 1912. They sailed from Bremen, Germany, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the S S Neckar, owned and operated by North German Lloyd, the third largest transporter of steerage passengers who were nearly all emigrating to the United States. They arrived in Philadelphia on 28 May 1912. Before we continue with Jekuthiel's biography, let us give some details about his brother Simon. A poet and critic, Simon Ginsburg had published his first poem in 1910 in the Hebrew literary, social, and scientific monthly Ha-Shillo'ah before he emigrated to the United States. After reaching the United States he studied at Columbia University, and obtained a doctorate from 'Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning' in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1923. He describes himself as a teacher in his 1925 application for citizenship. Let us return to Jekuthiel Ginsburg's career.

After arriving in New York, Jekuthiel Ginsburg studied at both the Cooper Union and Columbia University. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art had been founded in New York by Peter Cooper in 1859 and offered free education for working class men and women of all races. Columbia University, the oldest university in New York City, had been established in 1754. Ginsburg graduated with an M.A. from Columbia University in 1916.

Already in 1916 Ginsburg was submitting problems with solutions to the American Mathematical Monthly. In 1916 he submitted the problem:
Find the value of (1+(1+(1+(1+√(1 +√(1 + √(1 + √(1 + ... to infinity.
He gives his affiliation as "Student, Cooper Union, New York." In 1917, with the same affiliation, he submitted:
Factor the expression x30+x25+x20+x15+x10+x5+1x^{30} + x^{25} + x^{20} + x^{15} + x^{10} + x^{5} + 1.
Surprisingly, a problem he submitted in 1928, and his solution in 1929, both still give his affiliation as "Student, Cooper Union." We say the affiliation of Cooper Union is surprising since from 1916 onwards he was assisting David E Smith at the Teachers College of Columbia University. In 1917 Ginsburg published the paper New light on our numerals which had an 'Introductory Note' by D E Smith. He writes [7]:-
... we do not know with any certainty the date of the first appearance of our numerals on the Mediterranean littoral, but we are not without hope that all this information will sometime be forthcoming, at least to some degree. Our hope that such further knowledge is not beyond our reach is strengthened by a discovery recently made by M F Nau, no report of which seems as yet to have appeared in English. Because of the importance of this discovery, I have asked Mr Ginsburg to make it known to the readers of the 'Bulletin' and to supplement the simple statement of the discovery by searching out such information as is available concerning the interesting scholar and teacher, Severus Sebokht, in whose writings the first positive trace of the numerals, outside of India, is found. This he has done, and his article is to my mind particularly valuable because of these features: (1) It shows us that these numerals reached the Arab lands a century earlier than was formerly supposed; (2) it shows that the zero was probably not in the system as then mentioned, showing at least that its value was not generally comprehended in the seventh century and possibly confirming the impression that the symbol had not yet been invented; (3) it reveals something of the life of a man hitherto unmentioned in the histories of mathematics. It is to be hoped that this valuable information may prove of such interest to readers that Mr Ginsburg may be encouraged to tell American scholars, in the near future, something of Sebokht's notable contributions to the study of the astrolabe.
D E Smith and Ginsburg published the joint paper Rabbi ben Ezra and the Hindu-Arabic Problem in 1918. They write [33]:-
Of the many lines of research pursued by Rabbi ben Ezra, one of the most interesting to students of the history of mathematics is that relating to the introduction of Hindu astronomy and computation into the Arabian civilisation. Of that remarkable activity of the seventh century which resulted in the amalgamation of numerous semi-nomadic tribes into one mighty empire we have abundant knowledge; of the opening of the golden age of Mohammedan civilisation and of its development under the caliphs of Bagdad in the eighth and ninth centuries we have well-authenticated records; of the influx of the Greek civilisation through the translation of the classics of Alexandria and Athens we have the witness of a large number of manuscripts in the great collections of Europe and America; but of the details of the introduction of the Hindu mathematics into the region of Mesopotamia we are still in need of further information. To be sure, we have some recent light upon the subject through the writings of Severus Sebokht, a religious scholar of the seventh century, but the problem is still far from solution.
D E Smith wrote an 'Introductory Note' to Ginsburg's 1922 paper Rabbi Ben Ezra on permutations and combinations [8]:-
Some interesting material relating to the presentation of permutations and combinations in early times has recently been found by Messrs Ginsburg and Turetsky, and the editor of 'The Mathematics Teacher' has asked me to write a brief statement concerning it. In studying some unpublished manuscripts of Rabbi Ben Ezra (the learned Hebrew scholar of the 12th century, who is the subject of one of Browning's poems), Mr Ginsburg found a curious motive leading to the study of combinations, namely, the desire of the astrologers to find the number of ways in which the planets could come into conjunction, this having an important bearing upon astrological predictions. The treatment is entirely distinct from any now in use, and it has been set forth in print only in the Hebrew language, and very imperfectly. Mr Ginsburg has compared the text with an unpublished manuscript in the Hebrew Theological Seminary of New York, and has shown some very interesting results to which the work may easily lead. His translation and commentary are set forth in this article ...
Let us note that Turetsky who is referred to in this quote is Morris Turetsky (1881-1959).

In 1926 Ginsburg was promoted to assistant professor of mathematics at the Teachers' College at Columbia University, a position he continued to hold until 1939. He published two papers in 1926, Professor Smith's Literary Activities, and On certain criticisms made by Professor G A Miller. The Abstract for the first of these reads [15]:-
Some time ago the writer made a list, as complete as possible, of Professor Smith's literary productions extending over a period of thirty years. No attempt was made to search out the books, essays, or reviews which he wrote during the first ten years of his teaching, but it is well known that he began his literary activity early. At the request of the editor a brief abstract has been prepared which will serve to give some idea of his productions from and after January 21, 1895, on which date he was thirty-five years of age. No attempt has been made, however, to list his encyclopaedia articles appearing in three standard publications and running up into the hundreds, nor teachers' manuals.
The second of these papers is interesting for several different reasons. The journal Bibliotheca Mathematica ceased publication in 1915 and its editor Gustav Eneström, had expressed a wish to D E Smith that some way be found of continuing its publication in America. Ginsburg writes in [14] that G A Miller had published various articles:-
... supposedly with a view to performing a service similar to that rendered by Mr Eneström. As a result there have appeared from his pen several hundred items of criticism, - an ambitious effort for anyone meaning, as it does, an attempt to throw light upon hundreds of "dark corners" in research, and presupposing the qualifications of such scholars as Eneström, Tannery, Curtze, and a large number of others who assisted in preparing the critical notes for the 'Bibliotheca Mathematica', - various questions have naturally arisen as to whether these criticisms are valid, whether they are based upon original source material, whether they are fair in their interpretation of statements, and whether the articles of Professor Miller really contain new information justifying changes in the works criticised.
Ginsburg does not hold back in criticising G A Miller with comments such as [14]:-
Professor Miller has simply made one of his unverified guesses without going to the source. ... Professor Miller is certainly not an authority even in these matters. A glance at his own book upon the history of mathematical literature would remove that impression.
Ginsburg's criticisms of Miller are totally valid and show his confidence in his own expertise. But this paper is interesting for another reason for, as we will see below, Ginsburg himself started up the journal Scripta Mathematica in 1932 which, in many ways, filled the gap left by Bibliotheca Mathematica when it ceased publication.

In addition to his position at the Teachers' College at Columbia University, in 1928 Ginsburg became assistant professor of mathematics at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, part of Yeshiva College in New York. In 1930 he was appointed professor and head of the department of mathematics at Yeshiva College. Let us note that although the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary was founded originally as a religious seminary in 1928, the creation of Yeshiva College did not happen until 1928. The College trains both Jewish secular and religious students.

Let us take a moment to look at the snapshot that the 1930 US Census gives us of the Ginsburg family. The family, consisting of Bella Ginsburg, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Haya Ginsburg, Simon Ginsburg, David Ginsburg, and Irving Karol, are living in Bay Ridge Avenue, Brooklyn, Kings, New York. Bella Ginsburg, Jekuthiel's mother, had emigrated to the United States in 1921, has no occupation, and does not speak English. Haya Ginsburg, Jekuthiel's sister, had also emigrated to the United States in 1921. She is a student at an Art School. Simon Ginsburg, Jekuthiel's brother, we have given details about above. His occupation in 1930 is given as Principal of a Hebrew School. David Ginsburg was born in New York and, although the census gives him as Bella Ginsburg's son, this is incorrect. He is the son of Simon Ginsburg who is widowed. Irving Karol is seventeen years old, a cousin of Bella Ginsburg, he was born in Russia and emigrated to the United States in 1923.

Some of Ginsburg's papers, published around 1930, are: Note on Stirling's Numbers (1928); On the Early History of the Decimal Point (1928); Napier on the Napier Rods (1929); and The Astrolabe, for the 'Exhibit of early astronomical and mathematical instruments' in the New York Museum of Science and Industry in February 1930.

Ginsburg is perhaps best known today as the founder and first editor of the journal Scripta Mathematica. The first part of the first volume is dated September 1932. It states on the cover that it is:-
A Quarterly Journal devoted to the Philosophy, History, and Expository Treatment of Mathematics.
The journal was published by Yeshiva College, and the first volume was edited by Jekuthiel Ginsburg with the associate editors Raymond Clare Archibald, Louis Charles Karpinski, Cassius Jackson Keyser, Gino Loria, Lao Genevra Simons and David Eugene Smith. Over the next few years Adolph Frankel, Sir Thomas Little Heath, Vera Sanford, and Joseph J Schwartz were added as associate editors.

Since it was founded in 1932, the first few volumes of Scripta Mathematica appeared at a time when the Nazis had taken power in Germany and were passing drastic anti-Semitic laws. The author of [34] writes:-
Scripta Mathematica was viewed by its creators during this time period as a bulwark against prejudice and hatred, and sought, by dint of its very existence, to set an example of harmony for the world.
Bernard Revel, President of Yeshiva College, wrote to Ginsburg in 1933 [34]:-
The significance of ... Scripta Mathematica, is deepened in these days by the dark cloud of medieval oppression and persecution in a home of Kultur, where books, even in the pure science of mathematics, are being destroyed, as though research, culture, the pursuit of disinterested learning, were the sole prerogative of a single people. It is truly symbolic of American liberalism and the spirit of true scholarship, that the best scientific minds of several lands have united to make possible the issuance and quality of "Scripta Mathematica" published by a college under Jewish auspices. The cooperation of these scholars and friends of learning shows the broadly human nature of true concern for cultural advancement.
For more information about the founding of Scripta Mathematica, see THIS LINK.

Ginsburg married Anna Brodsky in Manhattan, New York on 13 August 1934. At the time of the 1940 Census they are living at West 139, New York, and Anna's occupation is given as nurse.

He published two books, both jointly authored with D E Smith: A History of Mathematics in America before 1900 (1934) and Numbers and Numerals. A Story Book for Young and Old (1937). In a review of the first of these, Frederick Brasch writes [3]:-
It affords a great deal of satisfaction to review a book written so ably by mathematical scholars who have themselves the prerequisite historical background for colonial studies, such as the joint authors of "A History of Mathematics in America before 1900." At the outset we must congratulate the authors on having placed before mathematicians and other scholars a small volume giving the synopsis of the mathematical progress in the United States from early colonial period to almost contemporary generations.
The review [35] of the second of these texts, states:-
The pupils who use this book will be fortunate. They will read what others have not read - because history of mathematics is so rarely included in a school curriculum - the story of one of the great factors in civilisation. At successive stages the authors show a new need arising and describe man's efforts to increase mathematics and mould it to the purpose, until they have given all the essential facts about numbers and computation and the development, form and use of the numerals of all times.
For more information about these two books, see THIS LINK.

Harry Furstenberg, winner of the 2020 Abel Prize, was a student of Ginsburg's in the first half of the 1950s and wrote the article [6] full of praise for Ginsburg as a teacher. He writes:-
To me, as undoubtedly to many who attended Yeshiva College in the early 1950s, the subject of mathematics was identified with one remarkable individual, Professor Jekuthiel Ginsburg. ... In the classroom, he communicated to his students the innate beauty of abstract mathematical ideas. ... It is hard to imagine a professional career that owes more to one individual and to one institution than my own career owes to Jekuthiel Ginsburg and Yeshiva University. Over and beyond the mathematics I learned, I experienced the love of mathematics blended with human-kindness, an experience I can only wish I could replicate for others.
You can read more of Furstenberg's tribute to Ginsburg at THIS LINK.

In I952 Yeshiva University established the Institute of Mathematics, with Professor Ginsburg as director. Boyer writes in [2]:-
Jekuthiel Ginsburg saw through the press twenty-two volumes of 'Scripta Mathematica', working always against the odds of rising costs and inadequate assistance. His briefcase, full of manuscripts, galley proof, and page proof, was his constant companion between his busy office and his happy home. 'Scripta' was far from being a "pedagogical" journal, and yet its editor hoped through its pages, by sharing his enthusiasm for the subject, to improve the teaching of mathematics. To this end also he inaugurated several series of lectures, some sponsored by the Society of Friends of 'Scripta Mathematica' ...
In 1953 Ginsburg taught the course "Recreational Mathematics" at Yeshiva University [4]:-
The classes are for high-school teachers and the general public and are dedicated to spreading the idea that mathematics is an art as well as a science, and, furthermore, that learning and teaching it can be fun.
The material he used for this course was based on the "Recreational Mathematics" section in Scripta Mathematica. Ginsburg was particularly fond of this section in his journal and frequently contributed to it.

Boyer writes that Ginsburg [2]:-
... edited two series of monographs, 'The Scripta Mathematica Library' and 'Scripta Mathematica Studies', the volumes in which are historical, philosophical, and expository. (Here again the editor in his modesty saw to it that his name nowhere appears on the title-pages of the books.) In his indefatigable zeal for his subject Dr Ginsburg published also, through 'Pictorial Mathematics', portfolios of portraits and other historical and illustrative material and teaching aids calculated to popularise mathematics.
Ginsburg died from a heart attack in October 1957 [24]:-
At the time of his death, Dr Ginsburg was making arrangements for the celebration of the silver anniversary of the University's noted mathematical journal, "Scripta Mathematica," of which he was founder and editor.
He was buried in Montefiore Cemetery, Springfield Gardens, Queens County, New York.

References (show)

  1. H Bavli, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Hadoar (8 Ḥeshvan 1957).
  2. C B Boyer, Jekuthiel Ginsburg (1889-1957), Isis 49 (3) (1958), 335-336.
  3. F E Brasch, Review: A History of Mathematics in America before 1900, by David Eugène Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Isis 22 (2) (1935), 553-556.
  4. J Brooks, Beautiful mathematics, The New Yorker (3 January 1953), 10.
  5. Z Diamant, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Yiddish Lexicon.
  6. H Furstenberg, Inspiring the Love of Mathematics: The Legacy of Jekuthiel Ginsburg at Yeshiva, The Commentator: The Official Newspaper of Yeshiva College (18 May 2005).
  7. J Ginsburg, New light on our numerals, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 23 (8) (1917)366-369.
  8. J Ginsburg, Rabbi Ben Ezra on permutations and combinations, The Mathematics Teacher 15 (6) (1922), 347-356.
  9. J Ginsburg, Note on Stirling's Numbers, The American Mathematical Monthly 35 (2) (1928), 77-80.
  10. J Ginsburg, On the Early History of the Decimal Point, The American Mathematical Monthly 35 (7) (1928), 347-349.
  11. J Ginsburg, The policy of Scripta Mathematica, Scripta Mathematica 1 (1932), 1-2.
  12. J Ginsburg, Scripta Mathematica, Science, New Series 86 (2218) (1937), 13.
  13. J Ginsburg, A Generalisation of the Formula for Multidimensional Pythagorean Numbers, The Mathematical Gazette 40 (334) (1956), 287.
  14. J Ginsburg, On certain criticisms made by Professor G A Miller, School Science and Mathematics 26 (5) (1926), 476-481.
  15. J Ginsburg, Professor Smith's Literary Activities, The Mathematics Teacher 19 (5) (1926), 306-311.
  16. Ginsburg family,
  17. B Ts Goldberg, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Tog-morgn-zhurnal (New York) (9 October 1957).
  18. Jekuthiel Ginsburg, in I Landman (ed.), The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia 4 (Universal Jewish Encyclopedia Co. New York, 1941).
  19. Jekuthiel Ginsburg, in J Simons (ed.), Who's Who in American Jewry 3 (National News Association, New York, 1938-1939).
  20. Jekuthiel Ginsburg, in H Schneiderman and I J Carmin Karpman (eds.), Who's Who in World Jewry (David McKay Co, 1955).
  21. M Meyzlish, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Hadoar (25 Tishrei 1957).
  22. U G Mitchell, Review: Numbers and Numerals. A Story Book for Young and Old, by David Eugene Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, The American Mathematical Monthly 45 (1) (1938), 41-42.
  23. I C Nichols, Review: A History of Mathematics in America before 1900, by David Eugene Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, National Mathematics Magazine 9 (2) (1934), 59-61.
  24. Prof Jekuthiel Ginsburg, World-famous Mathematician, Dies in N. Y., Jewish Telegraphic Agency (8 October 1957).
  25. A Pen, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Tog-morgn-zhurnal (21 October 1957).
  26. Rabbi A B Shurin, Jekuthiel Ginsburg, Forverts (New York) (15 October 1957).
  27. V Sanford, Review: A History of Mathematics in America before 1900 by David Eugene Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, The Mathematics Teacher 27 (7) (1934), 353-354.
  28. V Sanford, Review: Numbers and Numerals. A Story Book for Young and Old, by David Eugene Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, The Mathematics Teacher 30 (6) (1937), 300-301.
  29. W L Schaaf, Review: A History of Mathematics in America before 1900 by David Eugene Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, The American Mathematical Monthly 42 (3) (1935), 166-168.
  30. E Silberschlag, Ginsburg, Jekuthiel,
  31. E Silberschlag, Ginsburg, Simon,
  32. H E Slaught, Scripta Mathematica, The American Mathematical Monthly 40 (4) (1933), 230-232.
  33. D E Smith and J Ginsburg, Rabbi ben Ezra and the Hindu-Arabic Problem, The American Mathematical Monthly 25 (3) (1918), 99-108.
  34. Yeshiva College's Scripta Mathematica Encapsulated at the 1939 World's Fair, Yeshiva University (23 September 2019).
  35. F A Y, Review: Numbers and Numerals. A Story Book for Young and Old, by David Eugene Smith and Jekuthiel Ginsburg, The Mathematical Gazette 21 (244) (1937), 246.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Jekuthiel Ginsburg:

  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update December 2023