José Luis Massera

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8 June 1915
Genoa, Italy
9 September 2002
Montevideo, Uruguay

José Luis Massera was an outstanding Uruguayan mathematician who had problems with his career due to his left-wing political views. He was imprisoned for nine years by the right-wing Uruguayan military dictatorship.


José Luis Massera was the son of José Pedro Massera Martínez (1866-1942) and Ema Lerena Joanicó who were both citizens of Uruguay, living in Genoa, Italy at the time their son was born. José Pedro was a professor of philosophy who taught at the University of the Republic in Montevideo from 1887 to 1927. He became a senator of the Republic of Uruguay for the Colorado Party (1927-1933) and is remembered today for having the Plaza José Pedro Massera named for him in Montevideo. Ema Lerena was from a highly educated and wealthy family. José Luis spent the first months of his life in Genoa, then returned to Montevideo with his parents. There they lived in a house in the La Blanqueada neighbourhood on Avenida 8 de Octubre near the junction with Calle Jaime Cibils. José Luis had a sister Maria Ema Mercedes Massera Lerena (born in Montevideo on 22 July 1918, died Mexico City on 4 October 1998) and a sister Maria Julia Josefina Massera Lerena (born in Montevideo on 21 March 1920, died in Montevideo on 17 April 2007).

In 1920 José Luis began his primary school education at the Crandon Institute situated, like his home, on the Avenida 8 de Octubre. After primary education, he attended the Lyceum before going to the Liceo N° 1 José Enrique Rodó in the Old City of Montevideo. There he had a German mathematics teacher whom he found good and he started to become fascinated by the topic. After a lesson on equations, José Luis went home and looked up 'equation' in his father's Encyclopaedic Dictionary and discovered there was a lot more to equations than he was learning at school. He began to look up other mathematics terms in the Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He explained in [17]:-
Thus, day by day and word by word, I began a tour, extremely chaotic, without a doubt, which was giving me a harvest of mathematical terms and valuable information about them, which I was slowly accumulating and conceptualising.
For more information about Massera's schooling, see THIS LINK.

Around 1930 he went with his parents to Carlsbad in Czechoslovakia, and the family visited Paris on their return journey. There Massera bought a geometry textbook and a trigonometry textbook which he read enthusiastically and found very useful. Completing his studies at the Liceo, he entered the Alfredo Vázquez Acevedo Institute to prepare for university studies in engineering. A native Spanish speaker, he also could read English and French by this time but at this stage took private lessons in German so that he could read German mathematics texts.

Massera was near the end of his course at the Alfredo Vázquez Acevedo Institute when one day he visited Rafael Laguardia, who lived only three blocks from his house. They began a close friendship which lasted for the rest of Laguardia's life. Together with some other young mathematics enthusiasts, they set up a study group taking turns to read a mathematics text, then give a course on it to the group. Massera describes the study group in [20]:-
In 1935 ... one day I visited Laguardia, without any sort of recommendation, in his very modest home, which was some three blocks from my own. I did not know Laguardia, but I knew who he was because a schoolmate had pointed him out to me in the quadrangle of the old Institute Vázquez Acevedo (Montevideo's leading college preparatory school). This visit started a very close friendship that lasted until his much lamented death a few years ago. ... Laguardia introduced me to the small group of mathematical 'aficionados': Antonio Petracca, Fernando Fortezza, Carlos A Infantozzi, Luis Castagnetto, and Mischa Cotlar. ... I want to say a few more words to describe the ambience in the small mathematical circle at Montevideo at the time of our encounter. For a rather long while, every weekend "Don" Julio Rey Pastor came to visit us from Buenos Aires and taught us about some of the new developments in mathematics - of which we knew nothing. Our mathematical relation with Rey Pastor was very fruitful, since we were able to discuss our mathematical problems freely on a one-to-one basis. In this way, our horizons were open to the then new mathematics: general topology, algebra, modern analysis. Don Julio had a very complex personality, and occasionally he was very difficult to deal with; but the overall balance of our relationship with him was, undoubtedly, enormously positive for the development of mathematics in Uruguay. On the other hand, our small group established a close and relatively assiduous contact with the much larger and more mature group of the Argentine mathematicians. We participated in the main scientific meetings of the Unión Matemática Argentina, and published most of our first papers in its journal, the 'Revista de la Unión Matemática Argentina'.
In October 1939 Beppo Levi left Italy and emigrated to Argentina. Around the same time Luís Santaló emigrated to Argentina. They both made frequent trips to Montevideo to work with the study group and Beppo Levi in particular, encouraged Massera to undertake research in mathematics. Beppo Levi and Massera wrote the joint paper Estudio en grande de una ecuación diferencial del Segundo orden which was published in 1947.

For a list of Massera's publications, see THIS LINK.

Let us go back to 1935, for that was the year that Massera entered the Faculty of Engineering where he was taught analysis by Eduardo García de Zúñiga (1867-1951), one of the first three engineers to graduate in Uruguay. Zúñiga quickly realised that Massera was at a level far about the other students studying mathematics and in 1937 he was appointed Assistant for Practical Classes of Mathematical Analysis. Although Massera's interests were firmly in studying mathematics, he was a student at the Faculty of Engineering training to be an Industrial Engineer. He felt that he had no option other than to complete the course, which he did in 1943. He did, however, begin publishing during this engineering studies, for example: Sobre la refracción de las líneas de fuerza (1937), and Integración de funciones racionales (1937).

While an undergraduate, Massera married Carmen Garayalde Zubizarreta (1913-2002), a teacher, artist and political activist and they had a son, José Pedro, and a daughter Ema Massera Garayalde (born 1941) who became a well-known writer. Massera later divorced Carmen Garayalde and married Martha Valentini who already had a daughter Moriana Hernandez from a previous marriage.

During his undergraduate days, Massera became increasingly involved in politics. The world situation, with the Spanish Civil War and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, disturbed Massera greatly. In 1939, the defeat of the Republicans in Spain and the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, motivated him to join a local Peace Movement of which he became President, and then the large movement, the Anti-Nazi Action for Aid to Free Peoples, where he became General Secretary. He joined the International World Peace Congress, and in 1942 joined the Communist Party of Uruguay. Also in 1942 the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics was created and Massera joined immediately. He said [17]:-
At last the group of mathematical enthusiasts had a home, albeit a very modest one in its material reality: a spacious hall partitioned into smaller compartments. You could work, study, give courses, it was a qualitative change.
In 1943 Massera graduated as a Civil Engineer and was appointed as a Professor of Mathematical Analysis in the Faculty of Engineering. In the same year Marshall Stone visited South America and met with Massera. He was very impressed and wrote to Harry Miller, who dealt with awarding Rockefeller fellowships, saying that Massera was under forty, showed a promising combination of interests, training and judgment that would help him "make a real contribution to mathematical and scientific development" in Uruguay. After Miller received a very positive recommendation from the Faculty of Engineering in Montevideo, he discussed the award of a Rockefeller fellowship with his colleagues and, in 1944, Rockefeller approved funding Massera for one year at Stanford to study for a master's Degree. Massera began to make travel arrangements but, having made known his political beliefs, he was denied a visa in March 1945. Miller continued trying to convince the U.S. immigration authorities to allow Massera to enter the United States.

Massera was appointed as Professor of Higher Mathematics at the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences in Montevideo in 1946. In October 1946 the Rockefeller officials learnt that Massera was running for the Uruguayan Congress and they discussed awarding him a fellowship to study in Russia. In January 1947, however, Massera was granted a U.S. visa and in March of that year travelled to Stanford where it had been arranged that Gábor Szegö would supervise his studies. George Pólya was also at Stanford and both he and Szegö made Massera very welcome. The most interesting course Massera attended at Stanford was on real number theory given by Hans Rademacher, a visiting professor.

In Palo Alto he lived in a private house and had the wife of an owner of General Motors as his landlady. She was visited by an FBI agent who quizzed her about Massera being a Communist. She told the agent her lodger behaved very well and studied very hard.

Massera became interested in ship stabilisation problems and asked Rockefeller if he could transfer to New York and attend New York University and also travel by train between New York and Princeton to work with mathematicians at Princeton University. This was agreed and he lodged in a room in New York. At New York University he attended Richard Courant's Centre where, as well as Courant, there were other leading mathematicians such as Kurt Friedrichs and Emil Artin. Massera said [17]:-
I worked a lot with Courant and Friedrichs on various topics and we became friends.
His most useful contact, however, was at Princeton where the Mathematics Department was headed by Solomon Lefschetz and others in the Department included Witold Hurewicz, Ralph Hartzler Fox and Eberhard Hopf. Working with Lefschetz was the most profitable experience for Massera. He said [17]:-
A deep friendship and mutual collaboration developed between us that lasted until his death. At last, he was the mathematician I needed.
Massera's research was going so well that he asked Rockefeller if they would extend his fellowship for another six months. They agreed and this period saw Massera produce his most important results. In 1949 he published two important papers in the Annals of Mathematics, one being On Liapounoff's conditions of stability and the other The number of subharmonic solutions of non-linear differential equations of the second order. In this second paper, Massera points out an error in Norman Levinson's paper Transformation theory of non-linear differential equations of the second order (1944). In his paper, Massera corrected Levinson's error and provided necessary and sufficient conditions.

Returning to Montevideo, Massera was appointed as Head of the Mathematics Laboratory of the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics. His time in the United States had been carefully monitored by the FBI. Barnay writes [1]:-
While [Massera] was in the United States, government agents followed his movements, intercepted his mail, covertly copied his diary, cultivated informants in his Stanford department and Palo Alto residence, investigated the Russian-born Lefschetz, and interviewed Szegö, Miller, and others, though his FBI file reflects uncertainty over some of his whereabouts and activities.
He had taken the opportunity, not only to work hard at his mathematics, but also to see much of North America [18]:-
I visited places and museums in New York, Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto (the great museum of Chinese antiquities), the frozen Niagara Falls, the Colorado Canyon, beautiful San Francisco and many other places.
The International Congress of Mathematicians was due to take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in September 1950. Massera was keen to participate in this and also in the meeting of the International Mathematical Union at Columbia which was scheduled to take place before the Congress. There were two problems, however, one was to obtain funds and the other to obtain a visa. Neither problem was solved and in August 1950, Massera informed both meetings that he would be unable to attend.

Paul Halmos visited Montevideo in 1950-51 and he writes about Massera in [10]:-
Massera was a stocky chap, below average height, with dark but greying crew-cut hair, and a quiet, almost placid behaviour. He was warm and friendly to me. While he made no secret of being an active member of the local communist party, he managed to keep his political life carefully separated from his professional one. I saw him every day during the official hours of the institute (which during the winter were from 1:30 to 6:30 in the afternoon). He stayed in his office more than most others (all offices could be spied on from all others thanks to an ingenious system of windows designed for that purpose), and he appeared to be busy doing what mathematicians do. We discussed the weather over cups of tea, he told me the contents of his last year's course on Hilbert space, and he tried to interest me in his current differential equations research problem. He frequently became interested in the questions the rest of us were asking one another, and, after disappearing into his office to think about them, would pop out an hour or so later with the answers. He typed his own papers - long ones; he read the current journals; he conducted a seminar; and he guided several students in their seminar-related studies.

His ideology had at least an indirect effect on the daily life of the institute nevertheless. Because of his ideology he asked for a month's leave of absence to attend a political congress in the USSR. The request came at an inconvenient time, in the middle of a term; Laguardia had to find someone to take Massera's classes, and he had to get along without Massera's help with the routine administrative chores. The worst part was that such a leave of absence heavily and publicly underscored the existence of a dyed-in-the-wool communist in the lnstituto. While communists were not as much feared and hated in Uruguay as in the States, they weren't exactly popular, especially not with the higher echelon of political officials (such as the ones in the Ministry of Education, whence all blessings flow). And, of course, communists were not popular in the U.S. Embassy, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and other North American sources of the staff of life. Laguardia was not happy.
One of the first students that Massera taught after returning to Montevideo from the United States was Juan Jorge Schäffer. While he was still an undergraduate Schäffer published two joint papers with Massera, Figura mínima que cubre puntos de una red (1951) and Sobre las curvas de nivel de una superficie convexa (1953). After Schäffer joined the faculty in Montevideo in 1957 they published many joint papers, for example their first of a series Linear differential equations and functional analysis was published in 1958 with the sixth in the series appearing in 1961-62. Their book Linear differential equations and function spaces was published in 1966. Constantin Corduneanu writes in the review [6]:-
The book contains in a more systematic and detailed form the main results in the theory of linear differential equations which the authors have obtained in the last years. The theory is developed for equations in a Banach space and considerable emphasis is placed on the methods of functional analysis and on the use of function spaces. The book is addressed primarily to readers interested in the theory of differential equations, but no specialised knowledge in this field is required. ... The book is well-written, self-contained and constitutes undoubtedly an important tool in this field of investigation. The reviewer believes that the topics and methods of this book will find interesting developments in other branches of modern research such as control theory and functional equations.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Massera published many high quality mathematics papers and many political papers. Among the many political papers we give English translations of a few titles: The triumph of Leninism (1957), The Communists and peace, democracy, patriotism (1958), Leninism, inexhaustible source of inspiration and teaching (1960), A contribution to the unity of the international Communist movement (1964), and Machiavelli and Marxism (1969). He had become a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Uruguay in 1955 and in 1963 he was elected National Deputy for the Left Liberation Front. Also in 1963 he resigned as Associate Professor of Mathematical Analysis, but continued to work on an honorary basis, teaching courses and working for the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics.

Although most of the political references will not be understood by those unfamiliar with the politics of Uruguay, we quote from a report by El Popular on 8 May 1968 of a radio broadcast by the Left Liberation Front [25]:-
Speaking first, Deputy Massera said "The millionaires have had enough time. Now it is the turn of the people!" Massera noted that during the last 10 days national life had been full of grave political developments, including: savage repression of the 1 May demonstration; formation of a new cabinet; devaluation of the peso; continuation of the struggle in the National Port Administration between the workers and Ribas; the Acosta y Lara scandal, and the scandal in connection with the peso devaluation that permitted those who knew to make millions. Massera said that the new cabinet, in which Charlone and Legnani remain, now includes such persons as Peirano Facio, representative of a large bank; and Frick Davies, a big landowner from Durazno who is the voice of the Latifundists. He said, "These people represent many millions of pesos but few votes. They show the raw face of government by the oligarchy, a government remote from authentic representation of the people."
There was a right-wing military coup in Uruguay in June 1973. On 22 October 1975 Massera was arrested. The details are contained in a submission to the Committee on Foreign Relations, International Human Rights Treaties Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate heard in 1980 [25]:-
The author claims that her stepfather José Luis Massera, professor of mathematics and former Deputy to the National Assembly, was arrested on 22 October 1975 and held incommunicado until his detention was made known in January 1976. She claims that he was denied the right of 'habeas corpus' before the civil and military courts and that an application to the Commission on Respect for Human Rights of the Council of State went unanswered. On 15 August 1976 he was tried by a military court on the charge of "subversive association" for being one of the leaders of a banned political party. The author further states that her stepfather suffered permanent damage as a result of torture. In her letter of 4 August 1977 she states that, having been forced to remain standing with his head hooded for long hours, he lost his balance, fell down and broke his leg which was not immediately taken care of, resulting in that leg being now several centimetres shorter than the other one. The author further submits that her stepfather remains imprisoned and that in his double quality as former Deputy and as an accused tried for a political offence, he has been deprived of all his political rights by a Government decree.

The author claims that her mother, Martha Valentini de Massera, was arrested on 28 January 1976 without any formal charges and that in September 1976 she was accused of "assistance to subversive association", an offence which carries a penalty of two to eight years imprisonment. She was not allowed to receive visits until November 1976, but had again been taken to an unknown place at the time of the submission of the communication in February 1977. In a subsequent letter of 6 June 1979 the author states that her mother was tried by a military court and sentenced to three and a half years imprisonment due to expire on 28 July 1979. Having been subjected to ill-treatment during her detention, her mother had furthermore suffered from the inadequate diet and the prevailing state of unhealthy working conditions, so that her health had been weakened.
Massera was released on 3 March 1984 after appeals by the American Mathematical Society, the Cuban Society of Mathematicians, the European Parliament, 50 Nobel Prize winners, members of the Austrian Parliament, members of the Australian Parliament and a large number of mathematicians and scientists from Mexico, United States, Spain, France, Great Britain, West Germany and Japan. Michel Broué and Gérard Gonzalez-Sprinberg write [4]:-
A vast movement of international solidarity formed for his release. Laurent Schwartz and Jean Dieudonné travelled to Montevideo for this purpose, on behalf of the Committee of Mathematicians.
For Massera's own description of his prison experiences, see THIS LINK.

Many universities had shown their support by awarding Massera honorary degrees while he was in prison, including: "La Sapienzia", Rome, Italy (1978); Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany (1980); University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, Nice, France (1981); Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Puebla, Mexico (1982); Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Quito, Ecuador (1982); International University of La Paz, La Paz, Bolivia (1983); the University of Havana, Havana, Cuba (1983), Autonomous University of Mexico, Toluca, Mexico (1983), University of Budapest, Budapest, Hungary (1984), and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1984).

After his release from prison, Massera traveled to Europe in 1985 and personally received his Honorary degrees from the Universities of Budapest, Nice, Berlin and Rome. He was appointed again to his position as Professor of Mathematics at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics in Montevideo. In 1991 he received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of the Republic in Montevideo and the following year he was elected to The World Academy of Sciences based in Trieste, Italy. In the second half of the 1990s, he organised Marxist seminars at the Sorbonne and other academic centres. In 1998 he gave the lectures ([17], [18], [19]) from which we have quoted.

In 2010, R Markarian and E Mordecki (eds.) published José Luis Massera: Ciencia y compromiso social [14]. For the Publisher's summary of the chapters of this book, see THIS LINK.

References (show)

  1. M J Barnay, Distributions in post-war mathematics (Ph.D. thesis, Princeton University, 2016).
  2. L Bethell (ed.), Ideas and Ideologies in Twentieth-Century Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  3. Breve reseña biografica, in José Luis Massera. El científico y el hombre. Premio México de Ciencia y Tecnología 1997 (Faculty of Engineering, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1998), 29-34.
  4. M Broué and G Gonzalez-Sprinberg, José Luis Massera 1915-2002), Gazette des Mathématiciens 94 (2002), 8.
  5. Chronology of José Luis Massera, José Luis Massera (8/6/1915 - 9/9/2002): In Memoriam.
  6. C Corduneanu, Review: Linear differential equations and function spaces, by José Luis Massera and Juan Jorge Schäffer, Mathematical Reviews MR0212324 (35 #3197).
  7. C J Greenwood and E Lauterpacht (eds.), International Law Reports 59 (Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  8. R Guarga, Presentacion, in José Luis Massera. El científico y el hombre. Premio México de Ciencia y Tecnología 1997 (Faculty of Engineering, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1998), 9-11.
  9. R Guarga, Propuesta de la facultad de ingeniería al premio, in José Luis Massera. El científico y el hombre. Premio México de Ciencia y Tecnología 1997 (Faculty of Engineering, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1998), 17-19.
  10. P R Halmos, I Want To Be A Mathematician (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1985), 186-187.
  11. L Holmström (ed.), Cases of the UNESCO Committee on Conventions and Recommendations Communications Examined Under the 104 EX/Decision 3.3 Procedure of the Executive Board (1978-1988) (Brill, 2019).
  12. J A Joyce, Human Rights: International Documents (Springer, 1978).
  13. J-P Kahane, José Luis Massera, Gazette des Mathématiciens 94 (2002), 9-13.
  14. R Markarian and E Mordecki, José Luis Massera: Ciencia y compromiso social (Orbe Libros, Montevideo, Uruguay, 2010).
  15. V Markarian (ed.), Un pensamiento libre cartas de José Luis Massera (Universidad de la República, 2008).
  16. J L Massera and J J Schaffer, Linear differential equations and function spaces (Academic Press, New York, 1966).
  17. J L Massera, Recuerdos de mi vida académica y política, José Luis Massera (8/6/1915 - 9/9/2002): In Memoriam.
  18. J L Massera, Recuerdos de mi vida academica y política, in José Luis Massera. El científico y el hombre. Premio México de Ciencia y Tecnología 1997 (Faculty of Engineering, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1998), 45-58.
  19. J L Massera, Reflexiones de un matematico sobre historia y filosofia, in José Luis Massera. El científico y el hombre. Premio México de Ciencia y Tecnología 1997 (Faculty of Engineering, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1998), 61-78.
  20. J L Massera, Mischa in Montevideo, in C Sadosky (ed.), Analysis and partial differential equations: A collection of papers dedicated to Mischa Cotlar (Marcel Decker, Inc., New York and Basel, 1990), xxi-xxiv.
  21. L Nachbin, Massera, one of the greatest mathematicians of Latin America of all times, Ciência e Cultura 35 (7) (1983), 917-919.
  22. J J Schäffer, Carta del Dr Juan Jorge Scháffer, in José Luis Massera. El científico y el hombre. Premio México de Ciencia y Tecnología 1997 (Faculty of Engineering, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1998), 21-25.
  23. N Schappacher, Framing Global Mathematics The International Mathematical Union Between Theorems and Politics (Springer International Publishing, 2022).
  24. United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations, International Human Rights Treaties Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Ninety-sixth Congress (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980).
  25. United States. Central Intelligence Agency, Daily Report, Foreign Radio Broadcasts Issues 101-105 (Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 1968).

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