*"Strangely enough, anyone wishing to write about Galois in Paris would do well to journey to Louisville, Kentucky."*—Leopold Infeld,

*Whom the Gods Love*

French mathematician Evariste
Galois (1811-1832), whose death in a duel at the age of 20 cut short a
remarkably productive career, is just one of many mathematicians represented in
a little-known collection
of rare mathematical and astronomical books at the University of Louisville library.

A visitor can leaf through the wrinkled, yellowed pages,
stiff with age, of the first printed edition of Euclid's

*Elements (Elementarum Euclidis)*(1482), through*Narratio Prima*, in which Copernicus's pupil Georg Rheticus (1514-1576) announced the Copernican sun-centered concept of the solar system, and through a copy of Isaac Newton's*Principia*, with Newton's own handwritten corrections on the errata leaf.
The man who assembled this notable collection was an
attorney and a mathematics enthusiast. Born in 1873 into a prominent Kentucky
family, William
Marshall Bullitt throughout his long life believed firmly in the value of
mathematics.

Lurline Jochum, Bullitt's secretary from 1927 until his
death in 1957, once recalled, "When a young man from law school would come
into the office and want a job, the first thing [Bullitt] would say is: How
much mathematics have you had? He felt that if you had a good mathematical
background, then you had a good reasoning power."

While an undergraduate at Princeton University, Bullitt
himself took mathematics courses in preparation for his subsequent legal
career. Later, he studied at the University of Louisville law school and
established a lucrative practice in Louisville, specializing in actuarial and
constitutional law. His clients included several of the country's largest
insurance companies. He even came up with a mathematical formula that helped
him win several insurance cases, beginning with an important case for the New
York Life Insurance Company.

Bullitt also served as Solicitor General of the United
States for a brief period under President Taft.

At the same time, Bullitt kept up with developments in
mathematics and astronomy by attending meetings of the American Mathematical
Society and other groups and by corresponding with mathematicians and scientists,
including Albert Einstein (1879-1955). His
friends included astronomer Harlow Shapley
(1885-1972) and mathematicians George
D. Birkhoff (1884-1944), E.T. Bell (1883-1960),
and Richard
Courant (1888-1972).

Bullitt's goal of collecting "the most important
original works of the most prominent mathematicians of all time" was
established during a parlor game instigated by his friend, the prominent
mathematician G.H. Hardy
(1877-1947).

Like everything else he did, Bullitt went about his new
project systematically. He asked Bell, Shapley, and others for lists of what
they considered to be the most important books that he could collect. He wrote
to mathematicians at various colleges all over the United States to get their
comments on the lists. When he was ready, he notified rare-book dealers of his
needs and even traveled personally to Germany and France to locate many of the
works on his final list.

Starting his project in 1936, Bullitt didn't miss much in
gathering first-edition works by the greatest mathematicians of all time. His
final purchase for the collection, Niels H. Abel's
1824

*Mémoire sur les Équations Algébriques*, occurred in 1951. He paid $500—a sum he termed "outrageous."
Bullitt kept most of his collection in his law office,
locking away some of the more valuable books in the office vault. In addition,
he maintained a good selection of mathematics books in a magnificent library at
Oxmoor, his family home
located just outside of Louisville.

Visitors to Oxmoor can remember browsing through the
library's mathematics books and Bullitt's habit of sometimes testing his
visitors by posing mathematical puzzles.

One special feature of the collection attracted a few
scholars even when Bullitt was still alive. Bullitt managed to assemble the
most complete collection of the works of Galois to be found outside of France.
This included copies of hard-to find, contemporary newspaper clippings, many
unpublished items, and other documents.

When University of Toronto physicist Leopold Infeld
(1898-1968) decided to write a biography of Galois, he visited Oxmoor and spent
several days examining the collection. Infeld, a socialist, later described the
visit—his first encounter with an American millionaire and the accompanying
lifestyle—in his autobiography,

*Why I Left Canada*.
"I still remember that in the bathroom the toilet paper
was rose-colored and perfumed," Infeld wrote. "The window frames
creaked so much in the wind that I was unable to sleep in the midst of all the
abundance and luxury."

When Bullitt died, his widow donated the more valuable books
to the University of Louisville, although schools such as Harvard would have
liked to obtain the collection. Later, the remainder of the collection also
went to the university library, and the current checklist contains about 370
items.

The collection is very rich in the authors that it covers,
and it includes some extremely rare items. At the same time, most of the
material is available elsewhere to mathematicians and interested historians in
other forms or later editions.

Such is a resource is useful, however, when historians want
to check original editions of mathematical works. In later editions,
particularly during the 19th century, changes made by editors often obscured an
author's original intent.

The William
Marshall Bullitt Collection of Rare Mathematics and Astronomy at the
University of Louisville Ekstrom Library gives visitors a chance to trace the
mathematical formulas and geometrical diagrams of ancient authors, to puzzle
out cryptic Greek and Latin phrases, and to contemplate some of the greatest
achievements in mathematics. It affords an opportunity to touch a heritage.

*Original version posted May 20, 2002*

**References**:

Davitt, R.M. 1989. William Marshall
Bullitt and his amazing mathematical collection.

*Mathematical Intelligencer*11(No. 4):26-33.
Infeld, L. 1948.

*Whom the Gods Love: The Story of Evariste Galois*. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
______. 1978.

*Why I Left Canada: Reflections on Science and Politics*. McGill-Queen's University Press.
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