In Yesterday and Long Ago (2007), mathematician Vladimir Arnold wrote:

When I resided at Cambridge as a senior fellow of Trinity College,Indian colleagues told me some details of Ramanujan's life which are not well known.

Once an Indian physicist who arrived from the USA visited Ramanujan in Trinity. The room of his friend seemed too cold for him, but Ramanujan explained that he felt cold only at night - when there is sometimes frost in Cambridge! The visitor asked to be shown how Ramanujan slept, and found that he slept on blankets and never suspected that he should have covered himself with them (people in Madras never do this!). That is why he felt cold, and that is why he got ill (it seems that first it was pneumonia and then tuberculosis) and died at a very young age.

I think that Hardy's snobbery and his inhuman behavior did not let him visit his sick student, who lived in the same house, and did not let him give elementary practical advice. While telling me this story, my Indian colleagues tactfully avoided a discussion of British customs and connected the reason for Rarnanujan's death with an Indian custom, according to which his wife did not follow him, but stayed in Madras. She was supposed to take care of her mother-in-law, Ramanujan's mother; this duty was more important than to take care of her husband! Since that time Indian students in Cambridge have been telling each other how to make a bed and they do not feel cold anymore.

I have never heard this story before and was really surprised. How reliable are these facts and Arnold's explanations? Are there any other sources that corroborate these facts? Possibly that Indian physicist mentioned by Arnold did write something about this?

I asked this question on MathOverflow but it was closed, because I had very little reputation they ruled the question is not suitable for their site.


1 Answer 1


I think it is fairly obvious from the quote that Arnold is blaming Hardy's neglect for Ramanujan's death. The real question is whether his charge is supported by evidence. Arnold's evidence comes from unnamed "Indian colleagues" who got it from also unnamed "Indian physicist", accompanied by his personal "it seems" diagnosis of Ramanujan's ailment, and complete with also his "I think" theory about Hardy's behavior.

As it happens, documents concerning the final years of Ramanujan's life and his medical condition have been collected by Rankin in Ramanujan as a patient and later analyzed by Young in Ramanujan’s illness. And there is plenty in them to tell that Arnold's anecdote is just out there.

For one, at Cambridge Hardy saw Ramanujan almost every day. As one can see from his correspondence with Ram and Thomson, Hardy was also closely following minutiae of Ramanujan's circumstances during his illness, including his stays, diet and specifics of diagnoses and changes in medical condition. He also advocated for his recognition by the college to provide moral support and remedy his depressions.

For two, Ramanujan spent more time at various nursing homes and other medical establishments than at Trinity. Even assuming that he could not figure out how to use blankets to stay warm, and could not get tips from anyone other than Hardy at Trinity, it is hard to believe that doctors would have missed that.

For three, there are plenty of other, well documented, factors that contributed to Ramanujan's medical problems, like malnourishment and sleep deprivation. His chronic depressions even led to a suicide attempt by falling in front of a train in a London subway station (the train stopped in time):

"It is clear that there were times when, because of the unavailability of acceptable Indian dishes, he was reduced to a very restricted diet of bread, milk and fried rice cakes (aplams). There is ample evidence that as a patient his recovery was retarded by his obstinacy in dietary and other matters. There is confirmation for this dating back to 1909 [10, p. 74], before he left India, throughout his time as a patient in Matlock (see below) and after his return to India in 1919."

"It is probable that Ramanujan's fits of depression were the result of the rather solitary life he lived while in Cambridge and in the various nursing homes where he was a patient. For this his working habits and vegetarianism were largely to blame. B M Wilson [W 107C, 11 (1-6)], who was an undergraduate in Trinity at the time, notes that Ramanujan was very rarely seen in Cambridge and that he sometimes worked for 30 or so hours at a stretch and then slept for 20." [quoted from Rankin]

And finally, the "first pneumonia then tuberculosis" has always been shaky:

"It appears that the first diagnosis of gastric ulcer was later changed, on not very firm evidence, to tuberculosis. By the end of 1918 his health had improved, and his election to the Royal Society and a Fellowship at Trinity may have been instrumental in this... Evidently, by this time the diagnosis of tuberculosis had been abandoned by his English doctors. On his return to India his health did not improve further, as had been hoped. Tuberculosis was again the preferred diagnosis."

Young speculates, based on detailed analysis of Ramanujan's medical history and symptoms, that Ramanujan had hepatic amebiasis, an aggressive infection of the large intestine that goes back to his 1906 bout of dysentery, of which his English doctors were unaware.


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