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IMU - Past and Present

Olli Lehto

At its meeting in April 1990, the Executive Committee of the IMU decided that the largely unorganized archives of the Union should be properly arranged and catalogued. Simultaneously, the Executive Committee expressed the wish that the history of the Union should be written. As Secretary of the Union, I had proposed that these questions be discussed, without having any personal role in mind in the execution of such a project.

At that time IMU files were stored in Zürich, and I had first thought that they could be arranged by Ms. Tuulikki Makelainen, who during eight years as my IMU secretary had become well acquainted with the Union. However, it soon became clear that a few short visits from Helsinki would not be enough to complete the work. Also, a great number of decisions had to be taken: what papers could be discarded, how to arrange the remaining material, etc. Understandably, Tuulikki Makelainen did not want to take sole responsibility for all this. It began to look as if nothing would be done with the archives in Zürich.

By a curious coincidence, a new storage area was being built at this time for the archives of the University of Helsinki. The rooms, inaugurated in 1993, were technically advanced, with maximum security, controlled temperature and humidity, etc. The increase of the storage capacity was so large that there were plenty of empty shelves. Professor Jürgen Moser, the President of the IMU in 1983-86, who supervised the IMU archives in Zürich, had asked me some years earlier whether the IMU material could be sent to Finland. I had then rejected the idea, but in view of the improved facilities in Helsinki and the deadlock in Zürich, I began to have second thoughts. I informed Professor Jacob Palis, the Secretary of the Union, of the Helsinki option.

In the spring of 1994, the Executive Committee decided to move the IMU material from Zürich to Helsinki. In September 1994, 14 mail sacks, weighing 20 kgs each, arrived in Helsinki. The files from the eight-year period 1983-1990 were already there. The work with the material was started in October 1994 by Tuulikki Makelainen and myself.

In informing me of the Union's decision to move its archives to Helsinki, Jacob Palis, representing the Executive Committee, asked me to write the history of the IMU. After discussions with Professor K. Chandrasekharan, who in my opinion would have been the first choice, I gave my consent to the Union.

The IMU was founded in 1920 and dissolved in 1932. After a first effort to reestablish the Union during the 1930s had failed, work started again soon after the Second World War. This led to the rebirth of the IMU, formally in 1951. The first General Assembly of the new IMU was held in 1952.

As regards the IMU material, the year 1952 is a dividing line. From the years before 1952, there was not a single paper in the Zürich archives. In contrast, a lot of original source material from 1952 onwards was stored there. The minutes of the General Assemblies and of the EC meetings are all in the files, as well as a good part of the important correspondence.

Searching for documents from the years prior to 1952 became an important part of my work. In spite of some success in locating old material, there are still serious gaps, especially for the years preceding World War II. In order to specify these gaps, I shall give you a brief survey of the old IMU. Since France played an important role, a good part of the missing documents may well lie hidden in Paris. Maybe there are people in the audience who could give advice on how to discover them?

In October 1918, even before World War I was over, discussions were started between France, Great Britain and the United States of America to reestablish international cooperation in science. It was decided that the Allied nations should withdraw from the existing international scientific organizations and establish new ones, with the eventual cooperation of neutral nations. It was further decided to establish a Council under whose aegis international unions could be formed. Thus the International Research Council (IRC) was founded in 1919, and the International Mathematical Union in 1920.

The first General Assembly of the IMU was held in Strasbourg in 1920, simultaneously with the first post-war International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM). Delegates from eleven countries, all Allied Powers, were present. It was decided to invite neutral countries to join the Union. In contrast, ex-enemies Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria were explicitly barred from membership. Professor Ch. de la Vallé Poussin from Belgium was elected President for four years and Professor G. Koenigs from France Secretary General for eight years. What is now the Executive Committee was called the Bureau. A link was created between the IMU and the ICMs. According to the Statutes, the Union was to determine the place and date of each ICM, and only mathematicians from countries which were members of the IRC were allowed to participate in the Congresses.

This information is from the short report on the first General Assembly printed in the Proceedings of the Strasbourg Congress. I have not been able to locate the Statutes of the old IMU. Nor do I know whether the Bureau held meetings during the years 1920-1932 of the Union's first existence. It would be highly desirable to find the files of Secretary General Koenigs .

The next International Congress of Mathematicians and the second General Assembly of the IMU were held in Toronto in 1924. The Canadian organizers complied with the policy of the IMU and did not allow mathematicians from the ex-enemy countries to attend the Congress. However, the rules of the IMU were violated to the extent that mathematicians from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, India and Spain, all countries which were not members of the IRC, were admitted to the Congress. In his report, Secretary General Koenigs said that they could be admitted because these were countries "which had not yet joined the IRC". The General Assembly elected Professor Salvatore Pincherle from Italy as the new President of the Union. He and Koenigs were soon on a collision course regarding the policy to be followed at the ICM 1928.

Even before the ICM 1924, criticism against the Union's discrimination policy had started to mount. In Toronto, the American delegates offered a resolution requesting the IRC to consider whether the time was ripe for the removal of the restrictions on membership. At the 1925 General Assembly of the IRC, several resolutions were put forward to remove such restrictions. The proposals found a majority, but it was not large enough to allow amending the Statutes. But only one year later, at the extraordinary General Assembly of the IRC, it was unanimously decided to invite Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria to join the IRC and the Unions associated with it. The Council revised its Statutes, and in 1931 a new period began in its history. The IRC was replaced by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). From the very beginning, ICSU was open to representatives of scientists from throughout the world.

The ICM 1928 was held in Bologna, Italy. In view of the decision of the IRC to invite Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria to join the Council and its Unions, Pincherle and the other Italian organizers decided to return to the pre-war traditions and invite all mathematicians to the Congress, irrespective of nationality. This policy of openness was widely accepted. More than that, strong voices had been heard from several countries, including the USA and Great Britain, that their mathematicians would not attend the Congress unless it were international without any limitations.

The Italian decision to open the Congress to participants from all nations violated the Statutes of the Union, which were still in force in their original form. In 1924 Koenigs had permitted mathematicians from countries that were not members of the IRC to attend the ICM. But now he made it clear that since Germany, which had not joined the IRC, was allowed to participate, the Bologna Congress was not a Congress of the Union and should therefore not be attended. His action did not much affect the Congress but it paralyzed the IMU incurably.

The Bologna Congress was the largest ICM so far, and it was scientifically a success. The IMU General Assembly was held during the Congress. In spite of the fact that Koenigs had declared it illegal and refused to attend, the French delegation took part in it. The Assembly endorsed unanimously Pincherle's policy of openness and requested the Presidents of the IMU "to study the present situation". (At that time, the Union had 6 Honorary Presidents and 5 Vice- Presidents.) Since Pincherle declined to continue as President and elections were not held, the IMU had no President for a year. In 1929 the Bureau elected the British Vice-President W. H. Young to assume the presidency.

The Statutes of the IMU expired at the end of 1931, at the same time with those of the IRC. New draft statutes should have been prepared and sent to the members before the Union's 1932 General Assembly. The Secretary General should have played an active role. Now I do not know of documents indicating that the IMU had a Secretary General at all. Koenigs's mandate had expired in 1928. The Bologna General Assembly extended the mandates of those members of the Bureau who did not explicitly decline. Koenigs, who was not present in Bologna, died in 1931. The Secretary of the 1932 General Assembly, Professor G. Valiron, was called "secrétaire provisoire".

Valiron's minutes of the 1932 General Assembly of the IMU have not been found, but two records are available. One is a résumé of the minutes, the other an American report. The American delegates had prescribed among themselves the line of action to be pursued: "A permanent international organization had no problems important enough to warrant its existence". The long debates about the future of the IMU led to a dead end. Finally, it was proposed that an international Commission be set up to investigate the desirability of continuing an international mathematical organization and to report to the next ICM and that during this period, the IMU would be suspended. The proposition was accepted with 23 votes, 16 opposed, 5 abstentions.

A Commission was set up in Zürich in 1932, with Professor F. Severi as Chairman, to study the possibility of reestablishing the IMU. In spite of many attempts to locate documents pertaining to its work, practically nothing has been discovered so far. At the ICM 1936, the Commission's Vice-Chairman G. Julia laconically stated that re-founding the Union could not be recommended.

After the Second World War the preparations which led to the rebirth of the IMU were largely in American hands, with Professor Marshall Stone as the key person. As noted earlier, there was no material about this period in the Zürich archives. In this case, some relevant documents have been found and more discoveries can be expected, now that Stone's papers have been located at Brown University, Providence, R.I. I am grateful for the help that I have received from many directions. In particular, I would like to thank Professors Henri Cartan, Bent Fuglede, and David Mumford.

It is an important question to determine what material in the IMU archives should be kept classified and for how long. For the moment, while the papers are being sorted, everything is closed. Even after the work has been completed, users are ordinarily not admitted to the storage area. They have to order the desired documents. Thus a catalogue must be produced of all the material, as detailed and descriptive as possible. Once a draft version is completed, it will be easier to consider which dossiers should be kept closed for a certain number of years. The procedure of how to preserve the continuity of organized files should then also be discussed.