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Neumann, Bernhard (1909–2002)

To many people in Canberra, Bernhard Neumann was the indomitable gentleman in his 90s who could be seen in his blue bicycle helmet pedalling between his offices at the ANU and CSIRO come rain, hail or shine.

But to the international scientific community, the late Professor Bernhard Neumann was renowned as a distinguished mathematician, specialising in group theory and an enthusiastic pioneer of maths education.

Prof. Neumann passed away on 21 October aged 93 and remained a remarkable presence on campus until the end. He was also a popular figure in Canberra, known both for his intellect and his cycling. He was so well known that when he was 'looking a bit wobbly' while riding across the Commonwealth Ave bridge, a Canberra taxi driver issued an alert on his radio, giving Prof. Neumann's position and asking drivers in the area to take care.

While known as one of Australia's most distinguished mathematicians, leading the development of mathematics education across the nation as foundation Professor of Mathematics at the ANU's Institute for Advanced Studies, Neumann spent the first half-century of his life in Europe.

Bernhard Neumann was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany in 1909. He showed an early genius for mathematics at school and taught himself differential calculus from one of his father's books at age 12.

Attending university in Berlin and Freiburg between 1928 and 1932, he achieved his first doctorate in November 1931 at the age of 22 — completing the complex dissertation in the abstract discipline of group theory in weeks.

As a result of his Jewish ethnicity, he abandoned hope of building a career in Germany and moved to England in August 1933. He settled in Cambridge and took just two years rather than the usual three to complete his second doctorate, extending his work on group theory. While in Cambridge, he won the prestigious Adams Prize, for an essay on group theory.

Prof. Neumann had met Hanna von Caemmerer in January 1933 and their relationship quickly blossomed. While his move to England separated them geographically, they remained close and became secretly engaged in 1934, when Hanna visited London.

They communicated via a secret letter network until they were able to meet, albeit briefly, in Denmark in 1936. Hanna, also an outstanding mathematician, finally moved to England in 1938 and the two married.

Prof. Neumann was appointed as a lecturer in Cardiff, Wales, after his time in Cambridge, but after war broke out, was interned for several months because of his alien status. Upon release, he joined the British Army and served in a variety of roles until the war was over in Europe.

In the meantime, Hanna completed her doctorate at Oxford. Prof. Neumann's mathematical passion and excellence won him a steady rise through Hull and Manchester Universities in Britain and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1959.

Just after he was elected to the Royal Society, Prof. Neumann visited Australia, met Sir Mark Oliphant and others at the ANU.

Prof. Neumann was subsequently offered the position as Foundation Professor of Mathematics. He accepted only on condition that Hanna would also be evaluated and offered a job if she was deemed qualified. She was also offered a position on staff at the ANU and they moved to Canberra in 1962.

Bernhard Neumann served as Professor for 12 years until his retirement in 1974, building up a successful department and encouraging the research of students from Australia and overseas.

He was elected President of the Australian Mathematics Society (1964—66) and Foundation President of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (1966-67). The Bulletin of the Australian Mathematical Society was established by Neumann in 1969 and he served as its editor for 11 years.

Prof. Neumann was also a driving force behind the establishment of the Australian Mathematics Competition which is still conducted in secondary schools across Australia.

Prof. Neumann was awarded seven honorary degrees, has had an award named after him and was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia in the General Division in 1994.

Beyond the formal accolades, he is remembered as a gentleman with a deep and abiding love for his family, a passion for cycling, music and friends and a love of Australia's national parks. His contribution to mathematics, to the ANU and to Canberra life will be sadly missed.

Original publication

Citation details

'Neumann, Bernhard (1909–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/neumann-bernhard-765/text766, accessed 21 September 2017.

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