"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
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.
Peterson, I. 1984. Off the beat: A lawyer's library. Science News 125(March 17):168-169.