Lester Senechal on Karl Menger

Karl Menger was professor at the University of Vienna in 1938 when, because of the political situation, he was told he was no longer welcome there. He went to the United States and after spending time at the University of Notre Dame, he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology at Chicago where he remained for the rest of his career. Lester Senechal studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the early 1960s and he describes interacting with Menger:

Lester Senechal on Karl Menger

It was impossible to have contact with Karl Menger without being influenced by him. He exuded the fine old European liberal values and the continuing Enlightenment. Without your immediately knowing it, his values became partly your own; also his mannerisms and his ways of teaching were subconsciously absorbed.

I cannot recall ever having a conference with him which dealt with course material, except in a few instances where I thought a hypothesis needed tweaking or otherwise wanted to quibble, and I don't think he would have welcomed the kind of tutoring that is widely expected of faculty today. But his door was always open to the discussion of ideas, and if you were fortunate enough to have an idea that was a little original, then he could embarrass you with his enthusiasm. "You must write it up!" he would insist, in his strong accent with its greatly distorted r-sound.

He was very kind and would often invite his students to his home or to his favorite Swedish restaurant close by his house. Sometimes the social aspect was for purposes of education a bit apart from mathematics, and art, music or philosophy were discussed. Occasionally we made an outing to see a painting or a piece of stained glass.

He loved the English language and he thought too that he loved American democracy, without ever adapting to either of these completely. As with many immigrants from wartime Europe, he was until his death neither fish nor fowl; for it also would have also been impossible for him successfully to return to Vienna. The play "Heldenplatz" by the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard describes an academic, not so different from Menger, who made the attempt, with disastrous consequences.

Last Updated November 2017