Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Neugebauer, Otto

Otto Neugebauer (1899-1990), professor of the history of mathematics, was born in Innsbruck in Tyrol on May 26, 1899. He studied mathematics and physics at the Universities of Graz and Munich, and was doing doctoral work at the University of Göttingen when he discovered the German translation of James Henry Breasted’s History of Egypt, and turned his attention to Egyptology. He earned his Ph.D. degree at the University of Göttingen in 1926, with a dissertation on Egyptian fractions. He was assistant professor at Göttingen from 1927 to 1933, and research professor at the University of Copenhagen from 1934 to 1939. When the first publication of scientific cuneiform texts was happening, Neugebauer, realizing that the translators did not understand the mathematics involved, undertook the work himself, and between 1935 and 1938 published a three-volume edition of Babylonian mathematical texts. Nazi interference with his work in Denmark led him to come to Brown in 1939 as professor of mathematics, bringing with him the journal which he was editing and would continue to edit at Brown, Mathematical Reviews. In 1941 he was able to bring Abraham Sachs to Brown with a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, and together they published Mathematical Cuneiform Texts. When Neugebauer wrote A History of Mathematical Astronomy, he dedicated it to “the Owl and the Rabbit,” i.e. his colleague Sachs and Sachs’s wife, Janet. Neugebauer himself was affectionately known as “the Elephant.” In 1945 Neugebauer and Sachs published Mathematical Cuneiform Texts. Neugebauer was responsible for the founding of the History of Mathematics Department in 1947. His book, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, published in 1951, was awarded the Heineman Foundation Prize in 1952, the same year in which his The Babylonian Method for the Computation of the Last Visibilities of Mercury won the John F. Lewis Prize of the American Philosophical Society. In 1961 he was awarded an American Council of Learned Societies prize as one of ten outstanding American university professors who were honored for “distinguished accomplishment in humanistic scholarship.” He was chairman of the History of Mathematics Department until 1965. He retired in 1969. In 1975 he published A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. He died on February 19, 1990 in Princeton, New Jersey. Since 1954 he had been associated with the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, and was awarded Brown’s highest honor, the Rosenberger Medal. On being elected to the American Academy of Science in 1977, he was cited as having had “more influence ... in the progress of mathematics in this century than any other individual.”