Raymond Claire Archibald

Isis Obituary

William D Stahlman, MIT

Obituaries Index

Dr Raymond Claire Archibald, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Brown University, died in his beloved Sackville, New Brunswick, on 26 July 1955. It was not until more than a month later than I heard the news, a fact which somehow saddened me even more. Though I had known him comparatively few years, I had held him in the highest possible esteem, both as teacher and friend. All students of the history of mathematics are especially grieved by his death, for with him there passes one of that subject's most devoted minds.

The following brief remarks are not intended to serve as the éloge which Professor Archibald's memory so richly deserves. A biographical study and a bibliography of his many works had been prepared even before his death by Dr Sarton, and will appear, as had been planned, in Volume 12 of Osiris. Dr Sarton has kindly allowed me to read that memorial in manuscript, and I hope that all of Professor Archibald's many friends will see it when it appears.

My present intention is, rather, to recall for readers of Isis a few impressions of a more personal nature. This task has proven much more difficult, for the essence of personal memories resists easy communication. Thus I write with some trepidation, for others who knew him longer and better may justly find these impressions inadequate, if not presumptuous.

I had at least one strong impression of R C Archibald before I met him. My early interest in the history of mathematics like that of others, was nurtured by his excellent Outline of the History of Mathematics (first edition, 1932, plus many revised editions). From this work I knew its author to be at once learned and meticulous, a born bibliographer and historian. That impression never changed, but after knowing him there was added the more important realization that R C Archibald was above all humane. I came to learn how gracefully he carried his vast learning, for he did not subscribe to the thesis that knowledge and authority are concomitant. He was an expert, but he was not impatient with the inexpertness per se in others. I believe he was capable of impatience only with deceit or indolence. With his erudition he combined a genuine humility and a gregarious good nature. He was first a gentleman, then a scholar.

As most readers know, Professor Archibald served for many years as an Associate Editor of Isis, and contributed many articles, reviews, and notes. He was also a charter member of the History of Science Society. These activities he matched in many other societies during a long life of scientific, historical, and artistic endeavour. The full list of his memberships and duties as assembled by Dr Sarton is truly impressive. His editorship, for example, in addition to that of Isis, extended at various times to the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, the American Mathematical Monthly, Scripta Mathematica, the Revue semestrielle des publications mathématiques, Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation (which he founded in 1943), and to two literary journals emanating from Mount Allison University, Sackville: Allisonia (which he helped to found in 1903), and the Memorial Library Bulletin (which he founded in 1951). He belonged to numerous professional societies and often served as delegate to international congresses and other meetings. In turn he made many close friends at home and abroad, and this was typical of his wide-ranging interests and his love of his fellow man, one which knew no national boundaries.

My personal recollections of Professor Archibald go back to meeting him, unannounced, in his office on the third floor of Sayles Hall on the Brown University campus. There amidst piles of journals and papers, in a large dimly lit room lined almost to the high ceilings with books, he listened as I expressed my interest in the history of science and my hopes and expectations as a new graduate student. From that moment on he never failed to concern himself with my progress and problems, or to give me encouragement.

Let me give one indication of his warmth and generosity. I recall visiting him early one morning and being presented with an almost complete set of his mathematical and historical writings, beginning with his Strassburg doctoral dissertation of 1900, and including all of his articles of which he still had off-prints and even a copy of his edition of Euclid's Book on Divisions of Figures (Cambridge University Press, 1915). He admitted he had spent much of the preceding day searching through his office for a copy of each, and apologized for the fact that I would probably find a few were missing.

Again, before going to Brown, I had written him concerning a question dealing with the modern literature on pre-Greek mathematics, and he responded not only by answering the specific question but also by adding that he was forwarding under separate cover a bibliography I might find useful. This turned out to be an offprint of his own extensive and valuable "Bibliography of Egyptian Mathematics" from the Chace edition of The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (Oberlin, Ohio, 1927-29, volume 2, pp. 121-206). His own initials had been erased from the cover.

I often visited him in that office, whenever I could without disturbing him, and he invited me to come and study there whether or not he was present. It was typical of him that he never locked the door.

On several occasions I did what I could to help him in packing the large wooden cases which he used to ship books and records to his favourite library - the Mary Mellish Archibald Memorial Library of English and American Poetry and Drama - which he established and developed at his own personal expense in honour of his mother at Mount Allison University. To this project he devoted much of his time and substance especially in his last years, and it will always remain a monument to his devotion to her.

His love and understanding of the world of the bibliophile resulted also in an immense contribution to the building up of the excellent mathematical collection at Brown University. For many years it was his habit to travel in Europe during summer recesses, and he loved to tell of how these trips provided an opportunity personally to search the book markets on behalf of Brown. It is to the credit of the librarians and the administration of Brown that he was given virtually carte blanche on these buying trips. Aided by long lists of desiderata which he had carefully prepared, and by an unerring memory of current holdings, he steadily acquired books and journals for Brown through the years until now, as those who have used it will know, the University possesses, if not the best, one of the finest mathematical libraries in America. It may be noted in particular that the excellent collection of publications of especial interest to historians of the mathematical sciences is owed largely to his untiring efforts.

There is no doubt but that Brown University misses its old friend and mentor. Though his status became that of Professor Emeritus in 1943, he continued to the end to maintain his office and spend his winters there while devoting his summers to Mount Allison and his friends in Sackville. His former students at Brown saluted him on the occasion of his retirement by commissioning and presenting to the university a beautiful portrait of him. It is centrally displayed in the reading room of the Physical Sciences Library, a fitting reminder of the major role he played in its development. His loss, like that of all truly productive and creative minds, is irreplaceable.

In 1956 William D Stahlman published this obituary of Raymond Claire Archibald in Isis.
The full reference is W D Stahlman, Raymond Claire Archibald (1875-1955), Isis 47 (3) (1956), 244-246.