I am about halfway through reading E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics, and I absolutely love it. I'm a mathematician, and I enjoy learning about the lives behind the names that I know and use so often. (I also rather like the distinct opinionatedness and bias).

I consider Men of Mathematics to be a sort of canonical introduction to the history of mathematicians. I do not know this to be true, but it was recommended to me so strongly and so widely that I feel it must be somewhat canonical.

But Men of Mathematics simply does not cover contemporary mathematicians at all, or even relatively recent mathematicians. Are there "canonical" references for lives of more recent mathematicians, or even exposés or profiles of recent mathematicians?

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    $\begingroup$ @SalmonKiller Does Tao have his own era already? ;) $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ See Claudio Bartocci (editor), Mathematical Lives : Protagonists of the Twentieth Century From Hilbert to Wiles (2007). $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2015 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ The first think that came to my mind was Mathematical People and More Mathematical People by Donald Albers and Gerald L. Alexanderson ("More ..." has Constance Reid as an additional co-author), and unless I'm overlooking it, no one has yet mentioned them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 19:50

4 Answers 4


I feel somewhat conflicted writing this because Bell's book inspired many people to become mathematicians, including some prominent ones. However, it is not a canonical introduction to the history of mathematics and mathematicians, "historians of mathematics tend to distrust the historical reliability of most of Bell’s accounts"(Leo Corry). We recently had a question What's the famous story about a mathematician who gave a talk without saying a word?, which illustrates why. He embellishes facts, retells anecdotes, and makes up some of his own. Even normally bland Wikipedia has some choice words for Men of Mathematics. Siegmund-Schultze summarizes it well:

"E.T. Bell’s book on Men of Mathematics is known to be notoriously unreliable and sketchy, but it is a good read and can instill enthusiasm for mathematics in the beginner, not least because it aims to show that “mathematicians can be as human as anybody else” and because Bell wants to “lead up to some of the dominating ideas governing vast tracts of mathematics as it exists today”".

So Bell's books are in the genre of historical fiction (he also wrote science fiction), which in itself is valuable, but it should not be taken for history. If you like the genre some call Muir's Of Men and Numbers "Bell's clone", although it still ends with Cantor. A much better book on 19th century is Yaglom's Felix Klein and Sophus Lie, which despite the title gives a panoramic view of 19th century mathematicians, and is more accurate. Like Bell Yaglom is a good writer, but he is captivating in ways different from Bell's and Muir's. More scholarly works on 19th century are Parshall's Sylvester and Wedderburn.

Researching mathematician's life is a lot of work, especially given the number of sources for recent times, and individual biographies written by original researchers are the way to go if you want real history. Something along the lines of Constance Reid's Hilbert, Courant and Julia. I am afraid there are no "canonical" compilations. By the way, instead of Hilbert Reid was supposed to write an "update" of Bell's Men of Mathematics, but changed her mind after traveling to Göttingen. In that she was encouraged by her sister, Julia Robinson, the heroine of the last book. Later she wrote a book about Bell himself, "more of a detective story than a true biography", uncovering some details that not even his family knew about. You may also go for first hand accounts, like Russell's Autobiography, touching on his interactions with early 20th century mathematicians, or deeply personal and candid Grothendieck's Récoltes et Semailles featuring French mathematicians of 1950-60s, but keep in mind that first hand accounts are by definition opinionated and biased.

Mathematics Unbound: The Evolution of an International Mathematical Research Community, 1800-1945 is a collection of 20 scholarly essays on the period. James's Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to Von Neumann goes into 20th century, and is less anecdotal, but he is not as good a writer, and see linked Siegmund-Schultze's essay about his history. O’Shea's Poincare Conjecture (touches on many 20th century mathematicians) gets a nod despite "many minor factual mistakes", it also has further reading pointers. "O’Shea, unlike James, is a mathematician who uses the work of historians with profit, gives credit where credit is due, immerses himself in the spirit of the times, and, crucially, imparts his mathematical knowledge in a form which the public can understand." MacTutor History has chronologically indexed biographies "useful as a first orientation for further research. Unlike in James’s biographies, there is also some mathematical literature for further reading added, although the manner of quoting within the biographical entries and the reliability of information provided are often similarly dubious". Cambridge's Mathematical Reading List has a history section with brief characterizations of some mathematicians' biographies.

There is also an assorted collection of modern anecdotes on Math SE, and this unsigned Greatest Mathematicians of 20th Century, read at your own risk.

  • $\begingroup$ Yaglom's book is not accurate. David Rowe in particular wrote multiple reviews of it showing its many inaccuracies (and if I hadn't given away my copy I could point out many more). Of all the sources you note I would say only MacTutor is reasonably reliable; the majority are typical 'mathematician's histories', full of anecdote and myth and with an almost complete lack of knowledge of the historical sources. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31, 2015 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Marius Kempe Everything is relative. Yaglom's, Reid's and O'Shea's inaccuracies are minor compared to Bell's fictionalization of history. MacTutor is not without sin either, according to them James "produced a number of outstanding historical studies" www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/James.html, and a large portion of MSE anecdotes is lifted from MacTutor. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with everything you say. The right source to recommend is of course the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ The link "Cambridge's Mathematical Reading List " appears to be broken. $\endgroup$
    – Ziezi
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Ziezi I updated it, should work now. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 20:53

It is hard to imagine a book like Bell's one written about modern mathematicians, but a nice substitute is some mathematicians autobiographies. Some outstanding examples are those of Andre Weil, Laurent Schwartz, Walter Rudin.


For biographies of Mathematicians I believe one of the best online resources is maintained by the University of St. Andrews.



About life and work of recent mathematicians:

Angelo Guerraggio, Giovanni Paoloni, Vito Volterra, Springer, 2013

V. G. Mazia, T. O. Shaposhnikova, Jacques Hadamard: A Universal Mathematician, American Math. Association, 1998

Fabrizio Palombi, The Star and the Whole: Gian-Carlo Rota on Mathematics and Phenomenology, Crc Press, 2011


Unfortunately, not yet translated in English:

Umberto Bottazzini, Poincaré. Philosophe et mathématicien, Belin, 2002 (French Edition)

Umberto Bottazzini, Matematici di profilo, Sole24ore, 2021 (Italian Edition)

which contains biographical outlines of many recent mathematicians as Boole, Gödel, Emmy Noether, Sofya Kovalevsky, Levi Civita, Ramanujan e Hardy, Brower, von Neumann, Wiener, De Finetti, Turing, Nash, Wiles, Perelman and others.


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