Dirk Struik

Historian of mathematics who suffered for his lifelong Marxism

©Dirk Struik, mathematician and historian of mathematics, was born on September 30, 1894. He died on October 21 aged 106.

Celebrated both as a socialist and for his pioneering work on the social history of mathematics, Dirk Struik remained active as a speaker and writer until well past his 100th birthday.

During the 1920s and 1930s he made important contributions to differential geometry and to tensor analysis, initially inspired by Einstein's new theory of relativity and undertaken mainly with his teacher, Jan Arnoldus Schouten. After the war, however, he gave up mathematical research in order to focus on the history of mathematics and science. His popular Concise History of Mathematics (1948), went through four English editions and has been translated into at least 18 other languages.

Struik's contributions to Marxist studies were also widely read, particularly after he became a cause celebre in the McCarthy era. Deeply affected by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 during his youth, he strongly supported the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1951 he and three friends were indicted under an "anti-anarchy" law for conspiring to overthrow the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, an action that led Bertrand Russell to comment: "My, that Struik must be a powerful man, indeed." It was five years before the prosecuting attorney agreed to drop the charges, after which Struik was reinstated to his professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He retained his faith in socialism to the end. Asked by a Dutch reporter whether the demise of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Communism had led him to question his beliefs, he replied: "No, of course not, because Marxism is an outlook on life. It's the same with Christians; you can be a good Christian despite the fact that Christians have committed horrible crimes in the name of Christianity."

Born in Rotterdam and educated in Leiden, Dirk Jan Struik gravitated in 1913 towards the circle around the physicist Paul Ehrenfest, a close friend of Einstein's. From him he learnt about the importance of tensor analysis for Einstein's new theory of gravitation. What Einstein called tensor analysis had been extensively developed 15 years earlier as the absolute differential calculus by two Italian mathematicians, but this field of research caught fire only in 1916 when Einstein demonstrated its crucial importance to the general theory of relativity.

Struik took up this hot new topic in earnest after obtaining an appointment in Delft as assistant to Schouten, and together they published several papers and books on the Ricci calculus and its geometrical applications. The collaboration lasted until the mid 1930s.

In 1921 Struik met Saly Ruth Ramler at a mathematics meeting in Jena, and they were married in the following year. A Rockefeller fellowship enabled them to travel to Rome in 1924, after which Struik moved to Gottingen, the mathematicians' Mecca, where he befriended another visitor, Norbert Wiener from MIT, who subsequently arranged Struik's first and only permanent academic appointment. Struik deeply admired the brilliant, but eccentric Wiener, and revered him for his moral courage in refusing to place his fertile mind at the disposal of governmental technocrats.

In 1934 Struik became a naturalised American citizen and began supporting various political causes. He was involved in the often bitter efforts to support the Spanish Loyalists in their battle against Franco's insurgent Fascists during the 1930s. During the war years he worked for the Council of American-Soviet Friendship. In 1944 he helped found the Samuel Adams School in Boston, a shortlived experiment that came under the scrutiny of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

Struik made no secret of his Marxism, but neither did it play a dominant part in most of his historical work, the best of which was guided by an intuitive grasp of the salient features that led to the formation of distinctive scientific cultures. His Concise History of Mathematics has done more to promote interest in the rich diversity of mathematical ideas and cultures than any other book of its kind. Having a reading knowledge of at least eight languages, Struik included special chapters in several of the book's many translations describing the mathematical traditions of the respective nations or regions of native interest. Multiculturalism became a buzzword decades later, but it stood at the heart of Struik's world view.

In Yankee Science in the Making (1948) he analysed the local social, geographical, and economic forces that shaped the lives of those inventors and amateurs who contributed to the emergence of a new scientific culture in colonial New England. A similar focus on local conditions animates his book on early modern Dutch science, The Land of Stevin and Huygens (1958, English translation 1981).

Struik attributed his longevity and zest for life to "the three Ms: mathematics, Marxism, and marriage". His wife of seventy years died in 1993 at the age of 99. He is survived by three daughters.

© The Times, 2000