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Karl Weierstrass (1815--1897) --- Historical Sketch

Karl Weierstrass got off to a slow start (and a poor start at that) toward becoming the superb mathematician that he, in fact, became. He was born in 1815 in the village of Ostenfelde, in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the sixteen states of modern Germany. Karl's father was an educated man, and he tried to steer young Karl, who had done well in grade and high school, into legal and commercial studies at the University of Bonn. But these entreaties were to no avail since Karl's interests at the University centered around athletics, sociability, and beer drinking. After four years at Bonn, he returned home without a degree, much to the disdain of his family. Rather than get a regular job, as his father wanted, he decided to study at the Münster Academy for certification as a school teacher.

The Münster Academy was a turning point, for there Karl had a superb teacher---Christoph Gudermann---who recognized the potential of Karl's mind. Weierstrass couldn't have been luckier, for Gudermann had earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Königsberg under the direction of the famed Carl Gauss. (Gudermann was the fourth among the seven students who got their doctorates under Gauss.) Under the guidance of Gudermann, Weierstrass soon found himself studying mathematics at the research level.

When he was 26 years old, Weierstrass passed his teaching certification exams with such excellence that Gudermann declared that he should teach university mathematics instead of high school. But the authorities dissented, so Weierstrass ended up teaching in small schools. It is reported that he taught children during the day, frequented taverns during the evenings, and did mathematics until very late at night. And this was his life's pattern for fourteen years.

In 1853, Weierstrass submitted an original piece of mathematics to the famed Crelle Journal, founded in 1826 and edited by the mathematician August Crelle, a journal devoted solely to mathematics research papers. The results in the article created a storm of attention, with the result that more than a few honorary degrees were conferred upon this heretofore unknown school teacher, and the University of Berlin hired him as an Assistant Professor, where he quickly became a popular professor.

Weierstrass remained at the University of Berlin for the remainder of his life, but his late years were difficult: he was confined to a wheelchair for the three years before he died of pneumonia in 1897.

The lifework of Weierstrass had great influence on the direction of mathematics, and he is known by some as the "father of modern analysis." His numerous publications of original results and his 41 doctoral students with their nearly 9400 doctoral descendents have had a lasting effect on mathematics.


Historical sketches

Copyright © 2006 Darel Hardy, Fred Richman, Carol Walker, Robert Wisner. All rights reserved. Except upon the express prior permission in writing, from the authors, no part of this work may be reproduced, transcribed, stored electronically, or transmitted in any form by any method.

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