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Mahler, Kurt (1903–1988)

by B. H. Neumann

Professor Kurt Mahler, FAA, FRS, perhaps the best-known mathematician, internationally, in Australia, died at University House, Australian National University, on Thursday, 25 February, in his 85th year. He was born in Krefeld, Germany, in 1903, and was self-taught in mathematics. While working in his father's printing firm as an apprentice, he found his love — and great aptitude — for mathematics. He completed his formal schooling as a mature age student, then entered university, and quickly became an outstandingly original creative mathematician.

When an academic career was barred to him by the Nazis because he was Jewish, he migrated first to Holland and then, in 1937, to Manchester, England, where he worked at the University of Manchester, rising from the rank of Assistant Lecturer to that of Professor. In 1948 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Other honours that he received were his election, in 1965, to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science. He was also an Honorary Member of the Wiskundig Genootschap (the Dutch Mathematical Society) and of the Australian Mathematical Society, an Honorary Fellow of University House, a Berwick Prizeman and a De Morgan Medallist of the London Mathematical Society, and a Lyle Medallist of the Australian Academy of Science.

At the end of 1962 he visited, at my invitation, the Australian National University, and was impressed with it: when I mentioned casually that I was still looking for another professor of mathematics, he pricked up his ears. I said: 'But you have been at the University of Manchester for 25 years I thought you were a fixture there?' — "25 years is enough for Manchester," he replied; so he was quickly recruited to join the Department of Mathematics in the Institute of Advanced Studies as a Professor. He stayed at University House, which provided him with the comforts and the friendly atmosphere he appreciated, and which later made him an Honorary Fellow. He had been elected to the Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science at the first opportunity, in 1965.

When Kurt Mahler had to retire from his professorship at age 65, he accepted an invitation to the Ohio State University, where he would not have had to retire until he was 70. However, he did not like the Ohio winters and the Ohio summers, so he returned to the Australian National University in 1972, and continued working in the Department of Mathematics of the Institute of Advanced Studies as a Visiting Fellow and Emeritus Professor. He still worked in his office the day before he died.

Professor Mahler had been in poor health from birth. He was one of a pair of twins, had only one kidney, and was not really expected to live. As a youth he contracted bone tuberculosis in a knee and leg. This was eventually cured in Manchester, but he retained a lifelong limp; and in later life high blood pressure and heart disease made it more and more difficult for him to travel and to enjoy seaside holidays. However, he retained his mathematical creativity, and only a week before his death he told me of some new work in number theory that he had just completed.

While mathematics was Kurt Mahler's first and greatest love, he had a number of other strong interests. He took up photography while at Manchester, and became an outstanding photographer. Early in World War II he took up the study of Chinese, and taught himself to read and write it with some fluency. At one time he gave a university course on reading Chinese mathematics, and he donated a Chinese mathematical collection to the ANU Library in the hope of encouraging other mathematicians to take up the study of Chinese. For many years he read avidly every science fiction book he could get hold of, and eventually donated a fine collection of SF to University House.

Professor Mahler never married, and his next-of-kin are two nieces, one in the Netherlands, the other in the USA. He had a great circle of friends and was much liked by everybody: his death ends, in the expressed opinion of many who knew him, an era.

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Citation details

B. H. Neumann, 'Mahler, Kurt (1903–1988)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 September 2017.

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