Leopoldo Nachbin applies for a chair

The following quote is taken from Paul R Halmos, I Want To Be A Mathematician (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1985). We note that the mathematician that Halmos refers to as T (for temporary) is actually José Abdelhay (1917-1996). Abdelhay was born in São José dos Campos, São Paulo, Brazil to Lebanese parents. He completed his university education at the Faculty of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters of the University of São Paulo, where he graduated in Mathematics in 1939. In 1940, he was appointed as an assistant to the Italian mathematician Gabrielle Mamana, regent of the Chair of Mathematical Analysis and Higher Analysis of the Department of Mathematics at São Paulo. He went on to fill the Chair of Mathematical Analysis on a temporary basis. He was an excellent teacher and had written a number of good research papers. He was not up to Nachbin's extremely high standards as a researcher, but nevertheless, was a valuable member of the Mathematics Department.

Leopoldo Nachbin by Paul Halmos.

In Rio Leopoldo Nachbin was struggling to make a living, although he was far and away the best mathematician within a thousand miles. When he wasn't proving theorems, he worked part time for the Brazilian Center for Physical Research and he taught a couple of courses at the University. Then came a ray of hope: the university authorities announced that a chair of mathematics was vacant and called for all candidates to come forth and present themselves. The chair had in fact been unfilled for some time - the duties associated with it were being carried out in an unofficial and admittedly temporary manner by a man who was chronologically senior to Leopoldo but mathematically not worth half of him.

Two candidates for the chair presented themselves - the only two possible ones - namely Leopoldo and the temporary holder. Since it was evident to everyone, including T, the temporary holder, that T's qualifications were as nothing in comparison with Leopoldo's, behind-the-scenes, parliamentary machinations were set in motion. Here is what some of them were.

Leopoldo was applying for a professorship. One cannot hold, and therefore one cannot apply for, such a position unless one has a Ph.D. from the Philosophy faculty. However, one cannot, or in any event according to T one should not, have such a degree, unless one also has the Brazilian equivalent of a master's degree from the Philosophy faculty. Leopoldo received his master's degree from the Engineering faculty. Conclusion: Leopoldo's Ph.D. should be revoked and, consequently, his right to apply for and hold a professorship should be taken away from him. These things T said officially and publicly.

As a consequence of these charges it was necessary to appoint a fact-finding committee whose duty it was to rule on Leopoldo's eligibility for candidacy. A curious aspect of the situation was that not even T hoped that the committee would rule against Leopoldo. The point, however, was that at the moment Leopoldo was riding high, his fame and his power were growing, and if the final committee to decide between the two candidates had been appointed right away, there would have been a very great probability of Leopoldo's victory, too great for T's comfort. The point of T's move was to play a delaying game, hoping to postpone the final decision for as long as possible. In the meantime T could go on temporarily filling the chair and trying to build up support. If, by some chance, the fact-finding committee ruled against Leopoldo, the game would have been won by T. If they ruled for Leopoldo, there would still have been a chance for T with the final selection committee - although, of course. in that case the exoneration itself would have been a positive factor in Leopoldo's favour.

This kind of official tomfoolery takes time - it took months, years, and in some respects decades before all the returns came in. In the end virtue triumphed. The first committee found in favour of Leopoldo, unanimously. Later, the selection committee awarded him the chair, and, in fact, I was in Rio again thirty years later, participating in the pomp and ceremony of Leopoldo's retirement from it.

Last Updated November 2022