BH Neumann 1909-2002

Emeritus Professor Bernhard Hermann Neumann, who provided the greatest inspirational influence in mathematics in Australia over a 40-year period, died in Canberra on 21 October 2002 not long after happily celebrating his 93rd birthday.

He first visited Australia for three months in 1959, during sabbatical leave, and fell in love with the country. So when, late in 1960, he was invited to found a Department of Mathematics in the research-focussed Australian National University, he was receptive to the idea. Within days of his permanent arrival on 2 October 1962, he also became involved in activities supporting the teaching of mathematics in schools.

Bernhard had a great influence in the founding and administration of the Australian Mathematics Trust. He became a mentor and source of inspiration to Peter O’Halloran (1931-1994) who, while on the staff of the Canberra College of Advanced Education (later the University of Canberra) during the period of the early 1970s to the early 1990s, is acknowledged as the Founder of the Trust. Peter gained great strength from Bernhard’s encouragement, not only while Bernhard held his position as head of mathematics in the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University, but also after Bernhard’s retirement.

Bernhard took an active personal part in the Trust’s activities. He was the Inaugural Chairman of the Australian Mathematical Olympiad Committee, a position he held from 1980 to 1986. He was also the representative of the Canberra Mathematical Association (a sponsor of the Australian Mathematics Competition (AMC)) on first the AMC Governing Board, and then on the Advisory Committee of the Trust. He was an active member of the Advisory Committee until his death.

Bernhard was also the principal inspiration behind the founding of other mathematics organisations. For example, he was the founding President of the Canberra Mathematical Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT).

Bernhard’s continual and effective promotion of mathematics among students of all ages, combined with his interest in and support for mathematics education at all levels, was significant and together profound in its impact upon all aspects of mathematics in Australia.

Early in 1998 the Australian Academy of Science arranged an interview with Bernhard as part of its Video Histories of Australian Scientists program. An edited transcript is available on-line here. This contains a clear and detailed account of his personal life and career in Mathematics up to that time.

Very briefly, he was born on 15 October 1909 in Berlin and grew up there. He studied at Freiburg and Berlin and earned his doctorate in 1931, making him one of the youngest ever to receive this award in mathematics from a German university. The difficult economic and political situation, especially related to race, caused him to leave for England in 1933, where he undertook a PhD at Cambridge completed in 1935. The employment situation was difficult and it was late 1937 before he began a university career at Cardiff. He was then, with the onset of World War 2, interned as an alien and later recruited into the British military, first in the Pioneers and finally in Intelligence. He recommenced his university career in Hull in 1946 and then in 1948 moved to Manchester where later he became a Reader. He earned various honours including the Adams Prize (1951) and election to the Royal Society of London (1959).

In 1938 he married Hanna von Cämmerer after a long secret engagement. They raised five children under the sometimes difficult domestic arrangements associated with two careers. The children have all had successful careers; one of them, Peter, became a Fellow of The Queen’s College, University of Oxford and Chairman of the United Kingdom Mathematics Trust (a similar body to the Australian Mathematics Trust). At the same time as Bernhard’s Canberra appointment, Hanna was offered a Readership at ANU. She arrived in August 1963 and within a year became the foundation Professor of Pure Mathematics, where her primary responsibility was undergraduate teaching. She rapidly involved herself with mathematics teaching in schools and with the AAMT.

Bernhard was the author of over a hundred research papers. Most of his work was in group theory. He also worked in other branches of algebra and sometimes in geometry. One notable example of the latter is the Douglas-Neumann Theorem, an extension of Napoleon’s theorem discovered independently by Bernhard and the Fields Medallist, Jesse Douglas.

Bernhard’s department raised the visibility of Australia in the mathematics community and mathematics in Australia. It provided strong graduate training, producing over 50 PhDs by the time he retired from ANU in 1974. Many of these graduates went on to senior positions and some to very active roles in mathematics education.

He was one of the few people who had attended all ICME conferences from ICME-1 (1969) in Lyon, ICME-2 (1972) in Exeter, ICME-3 (1976) (Karlsruhe) up to and including ICME-7 (1992) in Quebec.

Bernhard was elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1964. In that context he made significant contributions to mathematics education, primarily through vitalising the Australian Subcommission of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI), serving as chairman and National Representative on ICMI. His visibility at the early International Congresses on Mathematical Education meant that he and other AAMT members were able to respond with enthusiasm to a suggestion (at Karlsruhe) that Australia host a forthcoming ICME. Intensive work, in which many AAMT members played decisive roles, led to the successful bid to hold the 1984 Congress in Adelaide and this conference was remarkably successful.

In addition he was active in getting the Academy involved in providing materials for schools; after a long gestation period, six volumes of Mathematics at Work appeared in 1980-1.

The main award of Australian Mathematics Trust recognises, in Bernhard’s name, people who have made significant contributions over many years to the enrichment of mathematics learning in Australia and its region. Until his death, Bernhard took an active interest in this award, travelling around Australia where necessary to present the awards (now restricted by quota to no more than three per year), always protecting the polish on the silver tray with his trademark white gloves.

The Australian Mathematics Trust had another award in Bernhard’s name. Bernhard had a fascination for the ability of students who could achieve a perfect score in the Australian Mathematics Competition and such an achievement merited a BH Neumann Certificate of Excellence*.

His involvement in Olympiad activities was wider than may have appeared on the surface. He became a member of the Executive Committee of ICMI (1979-82) and, chairing a Site Committee, ensured better structure and operation of the International Mathematical Olympiads. The holding of the 1988 IMO in Australia, in our bicentenary year, had much to thank him for.

He was also active in The Australian Mathematical Society; it awards prizes in his name, on the basis of research student presentations at its annual meetings.

In 1994 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for service to the advancement of research and teaching in mathematics. These important achievements are only to be weighed beside the many individual acts of advice and assistance that Bernhard, initially with Hanna and then with the complete support of his second wife, Dorothea, gave to all who sought this from him. And they should be viewed in the light of many other activities including cycling, cello-playing, chess and exploring the countryside.

May the memory of him as a warm and influential person, and of his many contributions to mathematics, to mathematics education, and the organisations activities he helped found, serve to stimulate us all!

* In 2008 the BH Neumann Certificate of Excellence was renamed the Peter O’Halloran Award for Excellence.

 

John Mack, Mike Newman and Peter Taylor