Brodetsky, Selig

(1888-1954), mathematician and Zionist leader

by Leon Mestel

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Brodetsky, Selig (1888-1954), mathematician and Zionist leader, was born on 5 July 1888 at Olviopol, a small town in Ukraine 100 miles north of Odessa, the second son among the thirteen children of Akiva Brodetsky (1864-1942), a synagogue official, and his wife, Adel Prober (1864-1926). The family emigrated in 1893 and settled in the East End of London. Brodetsky recalled how his mother escorted her four children across the Ukrainian-German border, preventing discovery by stifling with a kerchief the crying of the infant she was carrying. The normal difficulties of life for a poor immigrant family were compounded by Akiva's failure to find steady employment with a living wage. From 1894 to 1900 Selig attended the Jews' Free School in Whitechapel, from where he won a scholarship to the Central Foundation School, Cowper Street, in the City of London. His academic potential showed itself when he headed the 1902 list of London County Council intermediate scholarship winners, and in 1905 he won a mathematical scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. His success in being bracketed senior wrangler in the 1908 mathematical tripos caused a minor national sensation. Newspaper editorials noted that if the Aliens Act restricting immigration had been passed earlier the Brodetsky family would have been barred. Later he was awarded the Isaac Newton studentship to work in the Cambridge observatory. In 1912 he went to Leipzig where he took his PhD for a thesis on gravitation.

Brodetsky's first academic appointment was as lecturer in applied mathematics at Bristol University. During the First World War, besides sharing a full heavy teaching load with the lecturer in pure mathematics, he was mathematical adviser to a firm specializing in the construction of optical instruments such as submarine periscopes, and collaborated with Professor G. H. Bryan of University College, Bangor, on mathematical aeronautics. His pioneering book, Mathematical Principles of the Aeroplane, was published in 1921, following his 1920 text A First Course in Nomography.

On 13 January 1919 Brodetsky married Mania (1890-1969), daughter of Paul Berenblum, from Bia?ystok and Antwerp. There was a son, Paul (1924-1979), later on the staff of Ruskin College, Oxford, a daughter, Adèle (Mrs Kitrick), and four grandsons. In 1920 he moved to Leeds as reader in applied mathematics, becoming professor in 1924, and succeeding his colleague W. P. Milne as head of the mathematics department in 1946 until his retirement in 1948. He continued his academic research into aeronautics and fluid mechanics. In 1927 he published a life of Sir Isaac Newton, which appeared simultaneously with the Newton bicentenary celebrations in which he took a leading part, and which included a pilgrimage to Newton's birthplace. His successful popular book The Meaning of Mathematics appeared in 1929.

Already at Cambridge Brodetsky had established the pattern of dividing his time between academic work and public service, especially but by no means exclusively for the Jewish community and the Zionist movement. While at Leeds he was active in the affairs of the League of Nations Union (later the United Nations Association) and of the Association of University Teachers. In 1928 he became a member of the World Zionist Executive and head of its political department in London. In 1940 he became president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the lay head of British Jewry. His election symbolized a democratic revolution, with the communal leadership being taken over from the old-established families by the descendants of the late nineteenth-century immigration. It also demonstrated that Zionism, towards which much of the establishment had been indifferent or hostile, had now the support of the majority of the community, undoubtedly owing to the traumatic events of the Nazi era and the Second World War.

Brodetsky achieved his crowning ambition when in 1949 he was elected president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a year after the foundation of the state of Israel. However, there appeared to be differing views as to the role of the presidency, which under his predecessor, Judah Magnes, had become semi-honorific, whereas Brodetsky viewed the post as analogous to that of a British vice-chancellor rather than to that of a chancellor. Many of the reforms of the university administration which he advocated were subsequently put into effect but, tragically, the continuing controversies led to a breakdown in his health. After a massive heart attack in 1950, he returned to London in 1951, resigned from the presidency effective in 1952, and devoted his remaining few years to the writing of his memoirs. He died at his home, 8 Brompton Lodge, 9-11 Cromwell Road, London, on 18 May 1954, and was buried at Willesden Jewish cemetery, London, two days later. He was survived by his wife. His public work was recalled thirty years on in a meeting called by Lord Weidenfeld at the House of Lords. Streets were named after him on the Hebrew University campus and in Tel Aviv. A Brodetsky House was attached to Tel Aviv University, a Brodetsky School was established in Leeds, and a Brodetsky House at the Jews' Free School.


S. Brodetsky, Memoirs: from ghetto to Israel (1960)
Reminiscences and letters of Sir Robert Ball, ed. W. V. Ball (1915)
private information (2004) [Mrs Kitrick, daughter]

U. Southampton L., corresp. and papers |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to Society for Protection of Science and Learning
Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, corresp. relating to Hebrew University
LMA, papers as president of board of deputies of British Jews
U. Leeds, Brotherton L., corresp. relating to Leeds academic assistance committee
U. Southampton L., corresp. with James Parkes

group portrait, photograph, 2 Nov 1949, Hult. Arch.
J. Epstein, bust, probably Hebrew University, Jerusalem
J. Kramer, oils, U. Leeds

Wealth at death  
£3679 11s. 3d.: probate, 4 Nov 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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