International Mathematical Union

The International Mathematical Union

The International Mathematical Union traces its origins back to 1920.

The President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, drew up Fourteen Points on 8 January 1917 on which to end World War I. These had not been agreed by the allies. On 4 October 1918 the German government approached Wilson, looking to start peace negotiations and Wilson presented them with the Fourteen Points. After nearly three weeks of negotiations without the other allies being involved, Germany accepted the Fourteen Points on 23 October. The British and French were certainly unhappy with some of the Fourteen Points and an difficult period followed.

In the middle of all of this, Wilson proposed another idea to Britain and France, namely that a structure should be put in place to re-establish international cooperation in science. His proposal was for an International Research Council which would be organised round International Unions for each of the various scientific subjects. These International Unions would operate through National Committees in the countries of the eleven Allied Powers, with these National Committees each supported by its National Academy of Science and National Research Council. The International Unions would have the power to invite neutral countries to join, but not those countries against whom the Allied Powers had fought. Wilson's proposal was accepted and in 1919 the International Research Council was founded and, in the following year, the International Mathematical Union was established.

The series of International Congresses of Mathematicians had begun in Zurich in 1897 but no congress was held during World War I (1914-18). The first post World War I International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Strasbourg in 1920. At this Congress a General Assembly of the International Mathematical Union was held. There were delegates from each of the eleven Allied Powers at the General Assembly. They made a number of decisions:

1. All neutral countries were invited to join the Union.

2. Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria could not be members under the terms of the International Research Council.

3. It was decided to link the International Mathematical Union to the International Congresses of Mathematicians, giving the Union the power to determine the place and date of each International Congress of Mathematicians. Only those from countries which were members of the International Research Council could attend the Congresses.

4. Charles De la Vallée Poussin was elected President for four years, and Gabriel Koenigs was elected Secretary General for eight years.

Feelings ran high on the issue that mathematicians from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria were forbidden from attending Congresses. Many felt that mathematics should not be subjected to political pressures but should welcome equally mathematicians of all nations. Leading advocates of that view were Hardy and Mittag-Leffler. Others held equally sincere views that the Union's exclusion rules were right.

In 1922, following the collapse of a bid from New York to hold the 1924 Congress, John Charles Fields made a bid to hold it in Toronto under the auspices of the International Mathematical Union. This meant that the congress could not be truly international because of the exclusion rules and many opponents of the Union threatened to refuse to attend the Toronto Congress. Although mathematicians from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria did not attend, those from other countries were persuaded to attend, particularly since mathematicians from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, India and Spain, countries which were not members of the International Research Council, were allowed to attend the Congress. The reason given was that these were countries:-

... which had not yet joined the International Research Council.

Pincherle was elected President of the International Mathematical Union at the 1924 Congress.

In 1925 the International Research Council invited Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria to join the Council and all associated Unions. In 1931 it was replaced by the International Council of Scientific Unions which had no restrictions on membership. If one imagines that common sense had suddenly prevailed, sadly this was not the case.

Pincherle invited all mathematicians to the International Congress of Mathematicians to be held in 1928 in Bologna, Italy. Koenigs on the other hand argued that Germany had not joined the International Research Council (although invited to do so) and hence by the International Mathematical Union's statutes German mathematicians could not attend. Technically of course, Koenigs was right. The argument had little effect on the Bologna Congress which was attended by mathematicians from a wide range of countries and was a great success. The argument, however, paralysed the International Mathematical Union.

An argument at the General Assembly of the International Mathematical Union during the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zurich in 1932 voted to suspend the Union and set up a Commission, chaired by Francesco Severi with Gaston Julia as vice-chairman, to discuss re-establishing it. Julia reported to the International Congress of Mathematicians at Oslo in 1936 that the recommendation was that the Union should not be re-established.

Marshall Stone was largely responsible for having the Union re-established after World War II. Much of the groundwork was done during the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1950 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The International Mathematical Union was formally refounded in 1951 and the first General Assembly of the new International Mathematical Union was held in 1952.


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JOC/EFR August 2004 School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland
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