Alexander Pell

Born: 1857 in Moscow, Russia
Died: 1921 in Bryn Mawr, USA

Alexander Pell was Sergei Degaev for about the first thirty years of his life. We shall refer to the subject of this biography as Sergei Degaev until we reach the point where he changed his name to Alexander Pell. After this we refer to him as Alexander Pell. It is a strange story for this man led two totally distinct lives, one as Sergei Degaev a Russian revolutionary, and the other as Alexander Pell a highly respected American mathematics professor.

Sergei Degaev's father was an army doctor while his mother was the daughter of the historian Nikolai Polevoi. Sergei was one of his parents' five children. The family were described as:-

... overwhelmed by romanticism ...
and they sought out the unusual but at the same time thought highly of themselves. As a child Sergei was described as:-
... gentle, good-natured and lively ...
but, in common with other members of the family, he had a very high opinion of himself.

Degaev studied at Mikhailovsky's Artillery Academy at St Petersburg and there, in 1878, he came in contact with members of the revolutionary movement. He was soon captivated by their ideas and this led to him being expelled from the Academy, being described as 'unreliable'. No proof of specific wrong-doing was given to support his expulsion. Following this, in 1880, he enrolled at the Institute of Transport Engineers. He also joined the most radical of the revolutionary movements, the Narodnaia Volia, whose aim was to assassinate the Tsar.

The Narodnaia Volia succeeded in their mission to assassinate Tsar Alexander II on 1 March 1881. They had expected this act to be greeted with joy by the Russian people, by the reaction was not as they had expected. Following the assassination the regime brought in many young people for interrogation and Degaev was among them. He had been heavily involved in the assassination for he had been one of a group who had dug a tunnel under Malaia Sadovaia Street in St Petersburg with the intention of planting a bomb there. However Degaev was fortunate for no evidence was found against him by the regime and he was subsequently released. He returned to the Institute and graduated with an engineering degree in June 1881.

After graduating, Degaev took up a position as an engineer in Arkhangelsk and almost immediately met Liubov Ivanova who shared his political views. They travelled to St Petersburg in November of 1881 where they were married. Around that time Degaev's younger brother, Vladimir Degaev, was arrested for distributing revolutionary literature. The Head of the secret police in St Petersburg at that time was Lieutenant Colonel Grigory Sudeikin who had recently been appointed there after being very successful in Kiev at countering the revolutionary movements. Sudeikin's methods as an interrogator were very effective. He would speak of the large number of sympathisers in the regime of the revolutionaries cause, but claimed that the methods that they used was holding back progress towards their aims. Vladimir probably agreed to act as an informer to gain his release, then failed to give Sudeikin useful information.

Sudeikin became very effective in removing members of the Narodnaia Volia and in March 1882 Degaev made contact with him. The excuse was to advise on a new police building, the aim of Narodnaia Volia was to prevent further damage to their group by Sudeikin, but the effect seems to have been that Degaev became an informer for Sudeikin against his fellow revolutionaries. Certainly after this meeting Degaev left for Tbilisi to work on the Tbilisi-Baku railway while Sudeikin was able to arrest large numbers of the Narodnaia Volia in St Petersburg.

Degaev was arrested in Odessa on 18 December 1882 and from prison he wrote to Sudeikin. If he had not been an informer before this, he certainly was from that time on, and Sudeikin arranged that he escape from prison. Around 200 members of the Narodnaia Volia were detained in the Spring of 1883 after they were identifed to the police by Degaev. He, on the other hand, became the head of the rapidly shrinking Narodnaia Volia. In May 1883 Sudeikin sent Degaev to Switzerland to meet Lev Tikhomirov, a former leader of the Narodnaia Volia who was in exile. Degaev was instructed by Sudeikin to bring the revolutionaries back to Russia, but when he met the exiled leader he confessed to being a double agent. Conditions were set so that his life might be spared. Degaev was told that he had to kill Sudeikin, then Narodnaia Volia would see to it that he could escape the country, and they would spare his life.

Quite why Degaev did not carry out his assignment rapidly is unclear. He returned to Russia and continued to act as an informer for Sudeikin, passing names of members of Narodnaia Volia. Tikhomirov summoned Degaev to Paris in September 1883 to tell him he better get on with his task, which he did. Degaev invited Sudeikin to his apartment, shot him in the back and fled. Narodnaia Volia carried out their part of the bargain and assisted him and his wife to escape to Paris where he was tried by them, expelled from their movement and forbidden from returning to Russia. Degaev and his wife Liubov went first to London, then emigrated to the United States in 1886.

In the United States the Degaevs moved around taking on menial jobs. Liubov worked as laundress and cook while Degaev worked for a while for a chemical firm. Sergei and Liubov Degaev became Alexander and Emma Pell when, in 1891, they became naturalised Americans. It is not known quite why they chose these names, one suggestion being that Degaev called himself Alexander Pell after the Russian chemist Aleksandr Pel, another being that he called himself Pell after the mathematician John Pell. The Pells settled in St Louis and in 1895 he enrolled for a doctorate in mathematics at Johns Hopkins university. He was awarded his doctorate in 1897 for a thesis On the Focal Surfaces of the Congruences of Tangents to a Given Surface.

The University of South Dakota had been built in the frontier town of Vermillion and was struggling to establish itself. In 1897 the University decided to appoint a professor of mathematics and asked Professor L S Hulburt of Johns Hopkins to suggest possible candidates. He replied that he could suggest a first class mathematicians who had the disadvantage of having a strong Russian accent. The reply from South Dakota was:-

Send your Russian mathematician along, brogue and all.
Pell was a great success as professor of mathematics at the University of South Dakota. He was described in the College newspaper of 25 March 1901. Pell and his wife were reported to be:-
... entertaining the class of which he was class father. From the head of the table beamed the jolly countenance of 'Jolly Little Pell' cracking jokes faster than the freshmen could crack nuts.
One of the undergraduates later wrote of him:-
Dr Pell occupied a unique position in the minds and hearts of his students. They respected him profoundly, yet they felt his personal friendship so true that they were at liberty to counsel with him with reference to their personal problems. He was one of the most human men I have ever known.
Pell was a good mathematics researcher and a colleague wrote that:-
... one could readily believe that in a social environment where research was the dominating interest Dr Pell would have been completely satisfied.
Pell joined the American Mathematical Society, published research articles in journals, and attended mathematics conferences. His career also went well within the University. He suggested that the University set up an engineering department and in 1905 the necessary funds were obtained and the Department opened. In 1907 the Department became the College of Engineering with Pell becoming its first Dean.

Anna Johnson entered the University of South Dakota in 1899 to study mathematics. (Anna Johnson is in this archive under the name Wheeler from her second husband.) Pell quickly recognised her talents and helped persuade Anna that she should follow a career in mathematics. She received an A.B. degree in 1903 and continued to study for a Master's Degree at the University of Iowa and then at Radcliffe. Pell's wife, Emma Pell (called Liubov Degaev before emigrating to the United States), died in 1904. Three years later Pell went to Göttingen where Anna Johnson was studying for her doctorate, and they married there in July 1907. Anna returned from Germany to teach at the University of South Dakota where Pell continued as Dean of Engineering.

In 1908 Pell resigned his post in South Dakota and went with his wife Anna to Chicago. There Anna completed her doctorate with Eliakim Moore as her supervisor, while Pell took a position at the Armour Institute of Engineering. Of course although Anna was starting out on her career when they went to Chicago, by this time Pell who was 26 years older than his wife, was over 60. In 1911 Pell suffered a stroke and was unable to continue working. Pell and his wife went to Mount Holyoke in 1911, where Anna taught and took care of her sick husband, then they went to Bryn Mawr in 1918 where again Anna was a mathematics lecturer. Pell died while the couple were living in Bryn Mawr. Anna set up a fund for an Alexander Pell scholarship at the University of South Dakota. The fund continues to operate.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

March 2004
MacTutor History of Mathematics