Celebratio Mathematica

Leonard Eugene Dickson

Leonard Eugene Dickson

by R. G. Sanger

First page of the original document
© The University of Chicago library

Le­onard Eu­gene Dick­son, Eliakim Hast­ings Moore Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Pro­fess­or of Math­em­at­ics, is primar­ily noted for his work in al­gebra and the the­ory of num­bers. He was the second per­son to re­ceive the de­gree of Ph.D. from the De­part­ment of Math­em­at­ics at the Uni­versity of Chica­go. He was pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an Math­em­at­ic­al So­ci­ety dur­ing the years 1917–18. He was the only Amer­ic­an math­em­atician to re­ceive an hon­or­ary doc­tor­ate at the Har­vard Ter­cen­ten­nary in 1936.

Pro­fess­or Dick­son has al­ways been a pro­lif­ic writer. His first pa­pers dealt largely with the the­ory of groups, a spe­cial branch of al­gebra. Later his primary in­terest was in the lo­gic­al struc­ture of al­geb­ras, and still later in the prob­lems in the the­ory of num­bers. His greatest ac­com­plish­ment in the the­ory of num­bers has been the solu­tion by al­geb­ra­ic means of the fam­ous War­ing The­or­em. This the­or­em, which was stated without proof by War­ing in 1770, states that every pos­it­ive in­teger is the sum of at most four squares, nine cubes, nine­teen fourth powers, and so on. Pro­fess­or Dick­son was the first one to give a proof of the gen­er­al the­or­em, es­sen­tially the part im­plied by the state­ment “and so on.”

Pro­fess­or Dick­son has writ­ten about fif­teen books on math­em­at­ics. One of them, “Al­gebra und ihre Zah­len­the­or­ie” won for him the first award of the Cole prize of the Amer­ic­an Math­em­at­ic­al So­ci­ety in 1928. In 1924 he re­ceived the first one thou­sand dol­lar prize of the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence for his work “Al­geb­ras and their Arith­met­ics.” A man about town, who had evid­ently been to school, saw the story in the pa­pers, mid re­marked that this man Dick­son cer­tainly had things wrong, be­cause every­body knew that arith­met­ic came be­fore al­gebra. His book on the “His­tory of the The­ory of Num­bers,” a huge three volume work, is mo­nu­ment­al com­pen­di­um of all that had been done in that field up to the date of its pub­lic­a­tion, 1919. His oth­er texts in­clude works which vary from an ele­ment­ary tri­go­no­metry to books on the latest in­tricasies and de­vel­op­ments in al­gebra and the the­ory of num­bers. Lately, on be­ing asked for a list of his pub­lic­a­tions, he vehe­mently replied that there were a few hun­dred of them and how was he ex­pec­ted to re­call the names of all of them.

In 1900 Pro­fess­or Dick­son was ad­ded to the staff of the De­part­ment of Math­em­at­ics at the Uni­versity of Chica­go. Be­fore then he taught at the Uni­versity of Texas and the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia. He had also spent a year abroad, study­ing at Leipzig and Par­is. At that time, it was the con­ven­tion­al thing for a man go­ing in­to edu­ca­tion­al work to spend some time abroad, and Pro­fess­or Dick­son fol­lowed the tra­di­tion­al lines, greatly to his profit.

While at the Uni­versity of Leipzig, Pro­fess­or Dick­son stud­ied un­der Sophus Lie. When the time came to leave Leipzig, Dick­son was in a quandary as how to an­nounce this fact to Lie, since Lie felt that the only Ger­man uni­versity of im­port­ance was the one at Leipzig, and that one was wast­ing his time if he stud­ied else­where in Ger­many. However, Pro­fess­or Dick­son broached the sub­ject to Lie fi­nally, and stated that he was go­ing to Par­is for a while be­fore re­turn­ing home. Lie im­me­di­ately con­grat­u­lated him on his plans, praised the Uni­versity of Par­is, and told him that he should have left for Par­is earli­er.

As a teach­er, Pro­fess­or Dick­son could be in­spir­ing to those who wanted to learn math­em­at­ics. He had no pa­tience with poor math­em­at­ics, or with one who would use such math­em­at­ics. Most of the stu­dents stood in per­petu­al awe of him, for he was in the habit of hurl­ing ana­them­as at those, both stu­dents and oth­ers, whose math­em­at­ics was at all weak. No mat­ter how sting­ing were the re­marks made con­cern­ing an in­di­vidu­al, noth­ing per­son­al was ever meant. Pro­fess­or Dick­son was as­sail­ing the math­em­at­ics, not the in­di­vidu­al, and was likely as not as soon as the peri­od was over, to speak in an en­tirely friendly mood to the per­son on some non-math­em­at­ic­al ques­tion.

One day in one of his classes a girl asked Pro­fess­or Dick­son to ex­plain a pas­sage in one of his texts, im­ply­ing that the book was not clearly writ­ten. For the whole class hour he com­men­ted vi­ol­ently on those who could not un­der­stand clear math­em­at­ics. The next day the girl had the au­da­city to re­peat the same ques­tion with the same im­plic­a­tions. Again the hour was spent in a tirade, Pro­fess­or Dick­son’s voice rising to meet the situ­ation. On the third day, when the same ques­tion opened the hour, Pro­fess­or Dick­son ad­mit­ted that there might be two in­ter­pret­a­tions for the pas­sage, stated which one was cor­rect, and the class pro­ceeded as usu­al. This up­heav­al was un­doubtedly due to the fact that the text, one of Dick­son’s books, was very con­cisely writ­ten, all ex­cess ma­ter­i­al (and much that was su­per­flu­ous to him was not to the poor stu­dent) be­ing promptly de­leted.

In the days be­fore I knew him, Pro­fess­or Dick­son is re­por­ted to have played a good game of ten­nis. At present, his main avoca­tions con­sist in read­ing mys­tery stor­ies and in play­ing bridge. He is an ar­dent ad­voc­ate of the game of bridge, is con­sist­ently a con­ser­vat­ive play­er, and be­lieves that it is his per­son­al mis­for­tune to hold so many bad cards. The tales con­cern­ing his bridge game are nu­mer­ous, the spe­cial ter­min­o­logy which he uses is un­con­ven­tion­al in the ex­treme, and his com­ments on and to his part­ners and op­pon­ents of such a nature that they fre­quently men­tally con­sign him to the re­gion known as Hades.

In the years that I have known Pro­fess­or Dick­son he ap­pears to have mel­lowed. He does not erupt in the venom­ous tirades as fre­quently as he used to, and as a con­sequence has lost some of the hor­rible glam­our which he used to ap­pear to pos­sess. His zeal and in­terest in math­em­at­ics, however, re­mains un­changed.