The following article about Solomon Lefschetz by Kristina Nilson Allen appeared in Clark News, volume 11, number 1, January 1988, page 9.

Undaunted Genius

The launching of Sputnik in 1957 galvanized the United States and brought one of America's greatest mathematicians, Solomon Lefschetz, out of retirement to pick up the gauntlet hurled from outer space. Lefschetz, who had received his doctorate from Clark in 1911, had been studying closely the research of Russian scientists. He was certain that the Soviets' superior knowledge of nonlinear differential equations (which deal with the laws of natural motion) had given them the edge in rocket control systems.

Lefschetz convinced the Martin Company, an aircraft manufacturer, to set up a mathematics research center as part of their independent Research Institute for Advanced Study in Baltimore. In a year, Lefschetz was directing the research of 17 scientists focused on nonlinear differential equations. It was the largest group of mathematicians in the Western world to tackle such a project. This project culminated a career which had brought Lefschetz worldwide recognition for outstanding contributions to the fields of algebraic geometry, topology (the geometry of form without size or shape) and nonlinear differential equations.

Ironically, Lefschetz turned to mathematics only after an accident curtailed a career in engineering. Born in Moscow in 1884 and raised in Paris, Lefschetz had earned his degree in 1905 in mechanical engineering at the Ecole Centrale. In 1907 he began work as an engineer with Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, but at age 23, Lefschetz lost both hands and forearms in an electrical experiment accident.

Accepting a fellowship at Clark University, Lefschetz turned his genius to mathematics; in 1911 he received his doctorate, along with classmate Robert Goddard, who later was to launch the space age itself. Lefschetz joined the faculty of the University of Kansas in 1913, the year he became a U.S. citizen and married Alice Berg Hayes, who as a special student at Clark received a master's degree in mathematics in 1911.

Lefschetz's early research in algebraic geometry with innovative use of topological methods earned him the 1919 Bordin Prize of the French Academy of Science and the Bocher Prize of the American Mathematical Society in 1924. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1924 and served as chair of Princeton's Mathematics Department from 1945 until his retirement in 1953. Author of eight books and over 100 articles, Lefschetz edited for a quarter century the highly respected journal, Annals of Mathematics.

Lefschetz's distinguished career led to his presidency of the American Mathematical Society and membership in the Royal Society of London and the National Academy of Sciences. Lefschetz was one of the few Americans to be awarded an honorary degree from the Sorbonne.

Throughout his lefe an exuberant world traveler who spoke six languages, Lefschetz was instrumental in establishing the mathematics department at the National University of Mexico. In 1965, at age 81, Lefschetz was awarded the national Medal of Science for his indomitable leadership in developing mathematics and training mathematicians. When Solomon Lefschetz died in 1972, he unquestionably had earned the rank of one of the world's foremost mathematicians.

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