Preserving documents of Hermite and Picard II: Hermite’s 1892 jubilee

[You are currently viewing a post that is part of a series : the story ; Hermite’s 1892 jubilee ; Picard’s youth ; Other items.]

It is an ancient tradition in Germany that upon reaching 50 years after obtaining their doctorate, old scholars would have a party thrown up in their honour called a jubilee (from this book it appears that in the early XIXth century von Goethe had one).

Not many people reached their seventies in those days, and the first mathematician to celebrate his jubilee very probably is Gauss (in 1849), while later occurences include Weierstrass in 1885 (the year he proved that theorem), and von Helmholtz in 1891 (a very big one, with hundreds of guests and several ministers and foreign officials in attendance).

Elsewhere in Europe, I could only find cases in the late XIXth century. In France, it seems probable that the first ever was that of Hermite on december 24th, 1892. In the UK, Lord Kelvin had his in 1896.

Which thus brings us to Hermite. If you don’t know the man and you happen to understand french, there’s an interesting hour-long conference by historian of mathematics Catherine Goldstein from 2013 which is worth watching. Readers of english can consult this paper by Tom Archibald. To sum up, Hermite has been a very creative and influential mathematician (indeed the leading figure in France in the 1860-1880 era), and played also a pivotal role in the diffusion in France of important works by german mathematicians (with whom he corresponded extensively).

Most of the documents obtained from the auctions (see the story) are those which Hermite received that day. He also received this medal, designed by Jules-Clément Chaplain and paid for by an international subscription (an idea of Darboux, who had a very pacifist, internationalist worldview), but unfortunately it wasn’t among the items any of those ebay sellers had. (Chaplain had also sculpted Hermite above a door of the Sorbonne, see this illustrated biography by Alain Nahuel)

As I later discovered, a document (available on Gallica) edited on this occasion does mention these papers. In no particular order, they are :

– two leather-bound-gold-plated portfolios : the green one from Die Königl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen (signed by the director and the secretary) and the brown one from l’Académie Impériale des Sciences de St-Pétersbourg signed by all the then academicians (many famous names there!)

– more than two dozens of similar formal unbound documents from many academies and scientific societies : Belgium, Italy, Germany… — but not the UK, why so ?   The stand-out one is probably from Berlin, signed by von Helmholtz, Weierstrass, Kummer, (?), von Bezold, E. DuBois-Reymond, Kundt, Vogel and Fuschs!


– a document from the Société Mathématique de France, signed by les membres du bureau et du conseil (for further reading on the history of SMF there’s a book by Hélène Gispert, which contains also five related studies by other authors)

– a document signed by many former students of Hermite at École Normale Supérieure

– three personal congratulatory letters : one by Brill in french, one by Dedekind in german, and one by Gyldén in french

– several dozens congratulatory telegrams sent just in time for the ceremony on the 24th (from all over Europe except the UK –again– even one from the US by Newcomb).

To view all the corresponding pictures, please go to this online album on flickr (and if you want to see in larger size you must remove the final part of the URL and add instead /sizes/l/  e.g. like on this picture).

Overvall, nothing scientific per se here, but that’s a nice set documenting the beginnings of the makings of the international mathematical community : the first ICM was held in Chicago six months later, in august 1893 (Hermite, like most europeans, couldn’t attend, but he did contribute a paper which was read there). On that topic, it must be noted that a very comprehensive book edited by Karen Hunger Parshall and Adrian C. Rice has been published by the AMS in 2002 (I do hope to read it one day).

At this point, one might wonder : but where is the medal ?  I regularly checked ebay and other websites for any “Charles Hermite” items, but nothing more came up.  As it happens, mathematicians’ medals tend to fare badly : a gold medal of Gauss ended up as a baby spoon, while one of Grothendieck’s medals became a nutcracker

And then in mid-november, as I was writing these posts, I did so again, and there was the medal, or so it seemed, from yet another seller!  It had been available for a fortnight at buy-now only, and luckily nobody had snapped it (the price was at the very upper limit of what I could manage). The seller said it wasn’t listed in his specialized catalogues, so there’s a good chance it is actually unique and the original one (if not, at least a very rare copy).  Which allows to finally reconstruct what was given to Hermite on December 14th, 1892 :


For the record, a few days later Louis Pasteur’s jubilee also took place at the Sorbonne (with a much bigger crowd, which is not surprising given his life-saving work and examplary scholarly attitude). And, among the documents given to him, there’s one listed that probably is very similar to Hermite’s (the one from l’Académie Impériale des Sciences de St-Pétersbourg).

Next post : Picard’s youth.


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