Entries $93$ and $94$ in Steen and Seebach's "Counterexamples in Topology" are named "Thomas's Plank" and "Thomas's Corkscrew". These are apparently named for a certain "John Thomas".

Who is this "John Thomas"?

The reference given in the back is to "A regular space, not completely regular" from AMM v 76 (1969) p. 181, by "J. Thomas".

Beyond that I can find nothing else about him apart from a few other sundry papers on topological matters.

Who is/was he? Date and place of birth (and death if he's died), and nationality would be a good start, but anything else to start the ball rolling, so to speak, would be useful.

Can we even be certain that the author of the paper given above is even the same Thomas whose name is attached to "Thomas's Plank" and "Thomas's Corkscrew" in the first place?

  • $\begingroup$ How sure are you that the author of "A regular space, not completely regular" (for whom I searched) is the same person after whom Thomas's plank is named? After looking up Thomas's plank, the connection does not seem obvious to me. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Jan 26, 2021 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa I'm not sure this is the same Thomas as "Thomas's Plank" etc, it's an assumption I have made (a reasonable one, I hope). Steen and Seebach much have inserted that reference into their book for a reason. Hence this is why I asked the question. I'll add a note to that uncertainty to the question. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa After a careful study of the cited work in AMM v76, I have come to the conclusion that Thomas's Plank and Thomas's Corkscrew are named for John David Thomas. The S&S team of students that compiled the compendium that became Counterexamples would scour the literature for likely instances of topologies that exhibited certain combinations of properties they were interested in, and assigned names to them according to the author of the paper that it appeared in. This is a particular case in point, whose eponym remains fairly obscure. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 23:28

2 Answers 2


This answer assumes that the person we are looking for is identical with the author of the following paper:

John Thomas, "A regular space, not completely regular." The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 76 (1969), No. 2, pp. 181-182.

The paper gives the author's affiliation as New Mexico State University. I found two mentions of Dr. Thomas in AMS publications from around the time of publication:

Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 16, No. 2, February 1969, p. 394:

Dr. John D. Thomas, Department of Mathematical Sciences, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001.

Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 17, No. 6, October 1970, p. 872:

Dr. JOHN D. THOMAS of New Mexico State University will be on sabbatical leave during the fall semester of 1970. He will spend his leave at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, New Mexico.

We also find Dr. Thomas mentioned in various annual reports of the mathematical sciences department of NMSU.

From the 1965-1966 report we can infer that Dr. Thomas joined the faculty of NMSU around 1960:

While the new staff added for next year are of very high quality and will further strengthen the group, it should be pointed out that of the twenty-four staff members presently hired for next fall, only Drs. Giever, E. Walker, Thomas and Ader will have been on the staff more than four years

In the 1966-1967 report he is is listed as a conference attendee:

Dr. John D. Thomas, Second Annual Conference on Pure and Applied Mathematics, (State).

In the 1968-1969 report he is listed (p. 221) as:

John D. Thomas, Project Directors of NSF Summer Institutes Meeting (national). Holiday Mathematics Symposium (national).

In the 1970-1971 report he is listed (p.184) as:

Thomas, John D., Pi Mu Epsilon Faculty Sponsor, Reviewer for Zentralblatt fur Mathematik

In the 1972-1973 report he is listed (p. 182) as:

John D. Thomas, Reviewer for Zentralblatt fur Mathematik. Chairman, Departmental Committee for Applied Mathematics.

In the 1977-1978 report he is listed (p. 206) as:

J. D. Thomas, Reviewer, Zentralblatt für Mathematik. Faculty advisor, Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. Director, intercollegiate regional bridge tournament, NMSU Bridge Club. Chairman, Computer Advisory Group.

In the 1983-1984 report, he is listed (p. 264) as:

J. D. Thomas, Chairman, Department of Mathematical Sciences Undergraduate Majors Committee (spring), [...] Chairman, doctoral committee, mathematics (one). [...]

From the Mathematics Genealogy Project we learn that Dr. Thomas advised nine Ph.D. students at New Mexico State University between 1965 and 1988, and that his full name is John David Thomas. We further see that he received his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in 1959. The title of his dissertation was "A Local Coefficient Cohomology Theory for Lattices". This is confirmed by a catalog entry at the library of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, which holds a copy of this thesis on microfilm.

There are two mentions of Dr. Thomas in minutes of the meetings of the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

June 9, 1955:

GRADUATE ASSISTANTS [...] John David Thomas, Department of Mathematics, \$1,500 for 9 months, September 1, 1955

January 17, 1957:

John David Thomas, title changed from Graduate Assistant to Instructor in Mathematics, salary changed from rate of \$1,500 for 9 months, 1/2 time, to rate of \$3,624 for 9 months, full time, January 16 to June 1, 1957.

So far I have identified the following publications by Dr. Thomas:

John D. Thomas, H. Ralph Lewis, and K. J. Melendez, "Computation of Fourier integrals of exponentials of truncated Fourier series." Journal of Computational Physics, Vol. 12, No. 4, August 1973, pp. 462-470

John D. Thomas and Joseph D. Zund, "A note on the theory of immanants." Rendiconti del Circolo Matematico di Palermo 28, 143-150 (1979)

  • $\begingroup$ It's a shame we can't get more biographical info: where and when he was born (even as vague as what year) is all I need as a bare minimum for my database. No matter, just a matter of time before it appears on the internet somewhere. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2021 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ @PrimeMover One problem is that his full name is made up from three very common names. Given the timeline established so far, John D. Thomas was likely born around 1930 in Oklahoma. I tried to find him in what is freely available online of the 1940 Census, to no avail. If you have a membership to ancestry.com, you might want to try there; they have the full census data, as far as I know. I wasn't able to find a note of his retirement from NMSU, you might want to inquire there. I couldn't find a relevant obituary, after sifting through dozens. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Jan 26, 2021 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed that is the problem. I did have a membership to some ancestry site many years ago but it lapsed and I never bothered renewing. For the moment he will languish on my "don't know" pile. I think the fact that the objects named for him are not unique (they are just simpler than the existing Tychonoff objects with similar properties) precludes him from having been classified as particularly notable. $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2021 at 5:59

I can't speak to whether my father (John David Thomas II) is the author of Thomas' Plank and Thomas'Corkscrew, but he DEFINITELY is the John Thomas you reference that taught at NMSU. I am grateful to you for your efforts to give credit to my father (who passed away on June 11th of this year), if he indeed is the person who wrote those papers.

A bit more about my father that you might find interesting is that prior to his teaching at NMSU, he was involved in testing of nuclear weapons. He was closely enough involved with it that he would pat the bombs on the side and say, "Now be a good little bomb and don't go off until we tell you to."

If you give me the dates of the two papers you cite, I can discuss it with my mother and we can discuss what Dad was doing during that time. That might provide a clue as to whether he is the John Thomas you are seeking.

  • $\begingroup$ I have this citation: Feb. 1969: A Regular Space, Not Completely Regular (Amer. Math. Monthly Vol. 76, no. 2: pp. 181 – 182) www.jstor.org/stable/2317272. That's the only paper I'm sure of. I have his passing date now: Jun 11, 2021, but his birth date I still don't know. Many thanks for any help. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2021 at 16:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would rather not provide his exact birth date for security reasons, but he was born in 1933, in Oklahoma City. My mother is still in touch with some of his colleagues at NMSU. We will check with them and see if "Thomas' Plank" and "Thomas' Corkscrew" sound familiar to them. Here is a link to his obit in the local Colorado Springs paper: obits.gazette.com/us/obituaries/gazette/name/… $\endgroup$ Sep 10, 2021 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for this. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2021 at 12:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.