Elon Lima on Saunders Mac Lane

In the interview that F J Craveiro de Carvalho conducted with Elon Lages Lima in January 2001 (Gazeta de Matemática 140 (2001), 5-16), Lima talks about his time as a Ph.D. student in Chicago and, in particular talks about Saunders Mac Lane. A strange problem between Mac Lane and Lima almost stopped Lima graduating with his doctorate.

Elon Lages Lima talks about Mac Lane

The period from 1954 to 1958 in the Mathematics department of the University of Chicago is mentioned by Paul Halmos in his autobiography in a bitter way. He makes it very clear in this autobiography that his bitterness was mainly directed at Saunders Mac Lane who was the head of the department and who did not consider him a good mathematician. During this period, several of his colleagues who entered the University of Chicago at about the same time as him were promoted while, under Mac Lane, Halmos would never rise to a full professorship.

After I finished my Ph.D. and left Chicago there was a huge stampede of mathematicians from Chicago. For example, Shiing-shen Chern, Edwin Spanier and Stephen Smale went to Berkeley. Morris Hirsch, who was a student and finished his Ph.D. at the same time as me, went to Berkeley too. André Weil went to Princeton, Otto Schilling to Indiana, and Irving Segal to Yale. There were others too.

I'm sure the bitterness you sensed in the Halmos writings was directed specifically at Mac Lane. Mac Lane probably assimilated this habit of considering that people who are concerned with writing good mathematical expositions are necessarily bad mathematicians and that they do it because they don't know how to do anything else, which is certainly not true in the case of Halmos.

I'm going to tell you a story that happened to me and that few people know about. To obtain a doctorate at the University of Chicago, it was necessary to take foreign language examinations. For the Master's Degree, one was enough, I did French, and then one more was necessary for the doctorate. You had to choose between Russian, German (and Italian, if the department allowed it). I studied German seriously and, of the group that was going to take the examination with me, I was the best prepared. However I felt safer in Italian. So I wrote a short letter to the department asking permission to take an Italian exam. Mac Lane responded with a letter to the Dean of Physical Sciences, saying that the department was in agreement as I was interested in Topology and Geometry and there was Italian participation in these areas, etc., etc. Some justification I don't remember the details of now. And I delivered the letter to the Administration. ...

A few days later we met and Mac Lane said he wanted the letter back. He was furious when I replied that I had already delivered the letter. It was absurd that I shouldn't have delivered the letter, I never understood why, and he even used a rather offensive tone towards me. I was very offended and went to the University Administration, asked for the letter and cancelled my registration for the Italian examination. I wrote Mac Lane a terse, three-line note afterwards, simply saying that I had cancelled my registration for the examination. I just signed Elon Lima, no Truly Yours or anything. I tried to give him the note but he wouldn't take it, so I left it with the secretary.

Soon after, at teatime in the department, he came to me and asked me if I was crazy, if I was going to give up the examination, then I was going to lose my doctorate. ... I replied that I knew that. "But are you going to give up your Ph.D.?, he asked. "No, I will not give up my PhD. I did what I had to do. I write a thesis (I think my thesis was very good, I was highly praised by the members of the jury) and as for the Italian examination, I won't repeat what happened. You know and I know too. I already have a ticket booked and I'm on my way back to Brazil." "Without the PhD?," he asked. "I'm going without the doctorate, the result people must decide what they want to do." I got on the plane and left. As they say, I paid to see this. I didn't care, or rather, I cared but above all was my self-esteem.

Some time later, a month or two, or perhaps less, I received a letter from Otto Schilling, who was acting chairman of the department and perhaps to save face from Mac Lane, saying that the department at its meeting on the said day, considering the quality of the my thesis, my work and my past as a student in Chicago, had decided, exceptionally, to consider that English was a foreign language for me. So the requirement of the two foreign languages was satisfied and I was awarded the degree of doctor. He could send for the diploma whenever he wanted. A friend of mine, a student in Chicago, picked it up, registered it at the Brazilian consulate and brought it to me. And this is the story of my PhD.

Last Updated February 2023