Encyclopedia Brunoniana

History of Mathematics

History of Mathematics was established as a department at Brown on January 7, 1947. It was the only such department in the country, dedicated to the study of ancient astronomy in its relations to mathematical disciplines and to the history of civilization. Otto Neugebauer, who had come to Brown as professor of mathematics in 1939, was named chairman of the department he had helped to create. On a visit to the Oriental Institute in Chicago in 1941 he had met Abraham Sachs and had arranged a fellowship to bring Sachs to Brown, where the two scholars, Neugebauer with his mathematical training, and Sachs with his knowledge of ancient languages, combined to publish Mathematical Cuneiform Texts in 1945. In 1953 Sachs received a grant to study astronomical cuneiform tablets in the British Museum, and his work enabled Neugebauer to publish Astronomical Cuneiform Tests in 1955, while Sachs published Late Babylonian Astronomical and Related Texts. Gerald Toomer came to Brown as a special student in 1959 and joined the department in 1963 to pursue his interests in “the history of mathematics in antiquity and the transmission of these systems through Arabic into medieval Europe.” David Pingree joined the department in 1971. Sachs became chairman of the department in 1965, Toomer in 1980, and Pingree in 1986. The program of the department was concerned with the history and transmission of astronomy, mathematics, and related disciplines in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Professor Pingree also taught courses in Sanskrit and the history of ancient and medieval India.

Following the death of Professor Pingree in November 2005, the department was disbanded. Its remaining member, Alice Slotsky, a visiting associate professor who taught Akkadian language from 1999 through 2007, was moved temporarily to the Classics Department in 2006-07. Thereafter the teaching of Akkadian was transferred to the newly expanded Department of Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies. To succeed David Pingree, the Brown administration established a new faculty position in the history of the ancient exact sciences, to be associated with whichever department is most appropriate for the scholarly interests of the appointee.

In the summer of 2007, the Brown University Library acquired Pingree’s personal library, which it now maintains as The Pingree Collection. Reflecting his scholarly interests, the collection focuses on mathematics and exact sciences in the ancient world, especially India, and the relationship of Eastern mathematics to the development of mathematics and related disciplines in the West. The collection contains some 22,000 volumes and a number of other publications and manuscripts.