Beno Eckmann

ETH Zürich obituary

Obituaries Index

On November 25th of the past year, our highly esteemed colleague Beno Eckmann, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the ETH Zurich, died in his 92nd year. Beno Eckmann was born in Bern in 1917. He studied mathematics and physics at the ETH Zurich where his teachers included mathematicians of exceptional stature as Heinz Hopf, Michel Plancherel, George Pólya and Paul Bernays. In 1941 he obtained his doctorate with a thesis in the field of algebraic topology under the direction of Heinz Hopf. After his habilitation he taught at the ETH Zurich and also at the Université de Lausanne. In 1944, he was promoted to Professeur Extraordinaire at the Université de Lausanne. In 1947, he spent some time in Princeton doing research and renewing the contacts with American mathematicians, interrupted during the 2nd World War. In 1948, a short time after his return to Lausanne, he received the offer of a professorship at the ETH in Zurich, a school he loyally served not only until he retired in 1984, but long afterwards. Beno Eckmann continued to be active in research, publishing a considerable number of papers until a few months before his death. During this time he edited the Collected Works of Heinz Hopf and published a collection of his own lectures on general topics from his long mathematical career under the title of "Survey Lectures".

The scientific work of Beno Eckmann covers a wide field of mathematical thinking including topology, geometry, homological algebra and group theory, to just name a few. In his work, he went directly to the heart of the problem and presented his solution with elegance and precision. He influenced many fundamental developments of modern mathematics. He contributed definitively to algebraic topology and was one of the founders of homological algebra, of category theory and of the cohomology theory of groups. Beno Eckmann was especially devoted to the education of doctoral students, advising more than 60 doctoral theses. Many of his students became professors at universities throughout the world. His impressive "doctoral family tree", which was compiled by his students in Barcelona for his 80th birthday, contains five generations of mathematicians and names from five continents.

In addition to his purely scientific work, Beno Eckmann accepted many other duties. He was Chairman of the department of mathematics and physics at the ETH Zurich from 1954 to 1956, President of the Swiss Mathematical Society from 1961/62 and Secretary of the International Mathematical Union from 1956 to 1961. Beno Eckmann was also active in the field of scientific publishing. For many years his was one of the editors of the famous "Gelbe Reihe", the "Grundlehren der mathematischen Wissenschaften" of Springer Verlag. In 1964, he founded the Springer "Lecture in Mathematics", a series which facilitated quick publication of mathematical results. Without a doubt his biggest achievement outside of his academic responsibilities was the establishment of the Forschungsinstitut für Mathematik at ETH, where he served as Director until his retirement. In the beginning, the Institute served to facilitate the scientific exchange so important for mathematics and to promote the international collaboration of the members of the department. From these small beginnings, the institute grew into a center of mathematical research renowned worldwide. In the summer of 2004, its 40th anniversary celebration attracted famous mathematicians from all over the world.

The national and international esteem for Beno Eckmann can be seen in the many honors he received, including honorary doctorates of the Université de Fribourg, the EPFL in Lausanne, the Technion in Haifa and the Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. He was named honorary president of the International Mathematical Congress 1994 in Zurich.

His former students, colleagues and friends will remember Beno Eckmann not only for his important influence on the mathematical life at ETH, but also as a helpful, kind and modest man of great personal integrity.

Urs Stammbach (translated by Jeannette Zehnder) ETH Zürich