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When I first thought of this question, I wanted to ask: If you could give one mathematician his remaining life until an average age for the time he lived in, who would you choose? However, this question is a bit too subjective for SE. So I decided to modify it to: Which mathematicians died very young or in a tragic way?

Two obvious candidates are Galois and Abel. I included more detail about them in an answer. But I'd like to know whether there are more examples.

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    $\begingroup$ Just go to www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Indexes/_500_AD.html and choose within your age range. I voted to close this question: what does it have to do with history of science or math? $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2015 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ The nature of Alan Turing's death is still debated so I won't post it as an answer. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 18, 2017 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ we also have Thales $\endgroup$
    – Guy Fsone
    Jul 21, 2017 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ @GuyFsone You mean Thales of Miletus, who, according to the oracle of delphi died in his 70's, or a different Thales? $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2017 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ Thales was not young of course he died in a tragic way $\endgroup$
    – Guy Fsone
    Sep 11, 2017 at 7:51

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André-Louis Cholesky (1875-1918) was killed in action near the end of World War I:

Cholesky died from wounds received on the battle field on 31 August 1918 at 5 o'clock in the morning in the North of France. After his death one of his fellow officers, Commandant Benoit, published Cholesky's method of computing solutions to the normal equations for some least squares data fitting problems in Note sur une méthode de resolution des équations normales provenant de l'application de la méthode des moindres carrés à un système d'équations lineaires en nombre inferieure à celui des inconnues. Application de la méthode à la resolution d'un système defini d'équations lineaires, published in the Bulletin Géodesique in 1924.


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No one mentioned John and Alicia Nash (if Alicia was a theoretical physicist, then I think she counts), even though they died earlier in 2015, the year the question was posted.

They died in a car accident.

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Aleksandr Mikhailovich Lyapunov (Александр Михайлович Ляпунов) committed suicide:

In 1917 Lyapunov left St Petersburg to take up a post at the university in Odessa, on the Black Sea coast. He taught at the university but in the spring of 1918 his wife's health began to deteriorate rapidly. Natalia Rafailovna suffered from a form of tuberculosis and Lyapunov was greatly disturbed to watch her health fail. On 31 October 1918 Lyapunov's wife died and later that day Lyapunov shot himself. He died three days later in hospital.


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Blaise Pascal a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher died at the age of 39.

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The list is already too long, and can be made much longer, so let me refer to two lists instead of mentioning individuals.

The book by A. Goodman, Univalent functions, vol. II (Mariner Publishing Co., Inc., Tampa, FL, 1983, MR0704184) has an Appendix which contains a long list of mathematicians victims of the Nazi regime in Europe. Certainly not all of them died young, but they died in a tragic way, no doubt.

There is also a (incomplete) list on Wikipedia of mathematicians who committed suicide https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Mathematicians_who_committed_suicide.

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Renato Caccioppoli committed suicide at 55, mainly due to his disappointments towards politics. He is known for his work on functional analysis, his masterpiece is "Measure and integration of dimensionally oriented sets" (Misura e integrazione degli insiemi dimensionalmente orientati). He was nephew of the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, he was also arrested due to its anti-fascism. His life (and death) are portraited in the Venice Film Festival awarded film Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician.

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These mathematicians (or very mathematical non-mathematicians) died young (<50) and/or from non-natural causes; I did not see these names:

Yom Tov Lipman Lipkin (c.1846-c.1876), smallpox. Codiscoverer of the Peaucellier-Lipkin linkage. A son of the famed Salanter rabbi, founder of the Mussar movement.

Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909), appendicitis. Number theorist, but best known for his work in relativity.

Janina Hosiasson (1899-1942), murdered by Gestapo. Foundations of probability and inference. Wife of:

Adolf Lindenbaum (1904-1941), murdered by Gestapo. Mathematical logic, published little, but collaborated widely, especially with Tarski.

Duro Kurepa (1907-1993), robbed and murdered during the post-Yugoslavia wars.

Carol Karp (1926-1972), cancer. Major founder of infinitary logic.

John Nash (1928-2015), car crash, wife also killed. Career cut short by schizophrenia.

Karel de Leeuw (1930-1978), murdered in his Stanford office by his perpetual grad student. Analyst.

Richard Montague (1930-1971), robbed and murdered at home, apparently by strangers he picked up cruising. Logic, philosophy, linguistics.

Robert Hamilton Boyer (1932-1966), murdered, a Texas tower massacre victim. General relativity, Boyer-Lindquist coordinates.

Frank Adams (1930-1989), car crash. Major topologist.

Alan Mekler (1947-1992), cancer. Applications of set theory and model theory to algebra.

Boris Weisfeiler (1941-?1985), disappeared while hiking in Chile during the Pinochet regime. Assumed kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

Zoltan Balogh (1953-2002), sudden illness (with history, also father Tibor died young). Set-theoretic topologist.

Elizabeth Gardner (1957-1988), cancer. Theoretical physicist specializing in disordered systems, her most mathematical work was the statistical physics of neural networks.

Moez Alimohamed (1967-1994), robbed and murdered outside his apartment. A UPenn math grad student, he had just finished his first paper/thesis. Published and degreed posthumously.

Michael B. Cohen (1992-2017), sudden illness. Up and coming superstar in CS, especially algorithms.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nash and his wife were returning from Oslo where he had just received the Abel Prize. $\endgroup$
    – user15168
    Aug 12, 2021 at 3:16
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William Kingdom Clifford suffered from a nervous breakdown and exhaustion on at least two occasions, almost certainly due to overwork, before passing away at the age of 33 from tuberculosis on the island of Medeira, Portugal, while recovering from a collapse.

Clifford produced the correct algebraic description of three dimensional Cartesian vectors by combining the rotational algebra of complex numbers and Hamilton's quaternions with Gibbs and Heaviside's reworking of quaternions, and by building on the ideas of Grassman.

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Matvei Petrovich Bronstein was a Soviet era theoretical physicist who was arrested in the night of August 6th during Stalins Great Terror. His crime was to believe in communism but not in Stalinism. He was aged just thirty and was executed in a Leningrad prison several months later, in February 1938. In fact, at the time of his arrest he already knew he was under observation by Stalins security apparatus. His wife, Lydia Chukovskaya, was finally allowed to see her husbands inquisition file in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet regime. At the time of his arrest she was told he had been sentenced to a labour camp for ten years without the right of correspondence. In his file she found the arrest warrant issued by the Kiev state security department on the 5th August, it said:

M. P. Bronstein who is trying to escape arrest should be detained for an active involvement of a Leningrad counter-revolutionary organisation.

They were friends of Andrei Sakharov, a physicist who was involved in the Soviet nuclear weapons programme and was later known for advocating civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union. In fact, he won the Nobel peace prize for his efforts and the Sakharov prize is named in his honour and awarded annually by the European Parliament for people and organisations dedicated to human rights and freedoms.

Bronstein counts amongst one of the first pioneers of quantum gravity. Landau had claimed that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle called into question the reality of the electromagnetic field in that it could not be probed with arbitrary precision. Bronstein showed that Landaus analysis was incorrect by showing that it could so be probed by an arbitrarily massive measuring apparatus, but he showed that there was a quantum limit when it came to gravity and this limit became ma icrst when particles approached what is now called the Planck mass. This is the energy scale at which quantum gravity effects are expected to become manifest.

Bronstein of course was not the only physicist to suffer at Stalins hands. According to Gennady Gorelik, his biographer, two other talented physicists were arrested at the same time: Alexander Witt from Moscow and Semen Shubin from Sverdlosk. They were sentenced to five and eight years forced labour respectively. They also both died in the winter of 1938 in the Kolyma.

One imagines these examples can be multiplied many times.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would you know if he was related to Lev Davidovich Bronstein ("Leon Trotsky")? Both were from Ukraine (separated by a generation) and Stalin quite often punished family members. $\endgroup$
    – user15168
    Aug 12, 2021 at 3:10
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Mojżesz Presburger was one of the victims of the Holocaust.


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Ada Lovelace, the 1st computer programmer, died at 36yo. From Wiki:

Lovelace died at the age of 36 on 27 November 1852,[48] from uterine cancer probably exacerbated by bloodletting by her physicians.[49] The illness lasted several months, in which time Annabella took command over whom Ada saw, and excluded all of her friends and confidants. Under her mother's influence, Ada had a religious transformation and was coaxed into repenting of her previous conduct and making Annabella her executor.[50] She lost contact with her husband after confessing something to him on 30 August which caused him to abandon her bedside. It is not known what she told him.[51] She was buried, at her request, next to her father at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. A memorial plaque, written in Latin, to her and her father is in the chapel attached to Horsley Towers.[citation needed]

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Misha Alekhnovich (1978-2006), a very talented mathematician in the area of Complexity Theory: http://people.cs.uchicago.edu/~razborov/files/misha_sigact.pdf See also: http://people.cs.uchicago.edu/~razborov/files/foreword.pdf

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Takeo Nakasawa was a Japanese mathematician who died at age 33. He published 4 papers introducing the subject of matroid theory. At the same time this subject was independently discovered elsewhere by Hassler Whitney, leading to Nakasawa's contributions being lost until much later. After this, he became a bureaucrat in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1938. Quoting wikipedia:

With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Soviets took control of Manchuria and Nakasawa was carted off to Siberia. He died of dystrophia at the age of 33 in Khabarovsk in the Soviet Union in 1946.

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In Europe, the First World War 1914-18, also called the Great War, was an extremely traumatic event, that stopped an era of well-being and progress (often referred to as La belle époque).

The European war 1914-18 involved all social components of the major European nations, with intellectuals and students in the forefront. The consequences were disastrous in terms of loss of human lives and careers of excellent scholars cut short. A drama that changed the destiny of a generation of scientists in many countries, the scientific community itself, and the course of scientific research.

Among the scientists, many mathematicians of many European countries died in the battlefield and in the trenches during the Great War.

I mention here, in particular, the tragedy of what has been called the incomprensible écatombe in France. In particular, 800 students of the École Normale Supérieure of Paris took part in the war, and 239 of them lost their lives. Among them, also many mathematicians (see $[1]$).

The war left a deep wound and a traumatic memory in the country, which influenced also the Bourbaki group: they described the post-war period in France as a “mathematic desert”, and they attributed the causes to the loss of a generation, decimated by the war.

According to some historian of mathematics, the trauma of the war influenced the abstract nature of the mathematics of the Bourbaki group. The historian of mathematics David Aubin writes:

Dans les années 1930, le groupe de mathématiciens Bourbaki a promu une vision abstraite et universelle de sa discipline en rupture avec celle de ses prédécesseurs. Le sacrifice de nombreux jeunes mathématiciens durant la Première Guerre mondiale a sans doute fortement contribué à ce revirement.

[During the years 1930, the Bourbaki group of mathematicians has prompted an abstract and universal vision of their subject, in rupture with the one of their predecessors. The sacrifice of many young mathematicians during the First World War has undoubtedly contributed to this reversal] ( $[2]$, p.1, my transl.)

And in his book L’Élite sous la mitraille $[1]$ David Aubin writes:

Au course des semaines le plus sanglantes de l’histoire de France, entre le 22 août et le 20 octobre 1914, douze mathématiciens élèves de l’École Normale supérieure de la rue d’Ulm, à Paris, tous agrégés de mathématiques et, pour la plupart, auteurs de travaux remarqués, publiés et recencés dans le repertoire de reference, le “Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik” (JFM), sont tués sur le champs de bataille du Nord et de l’Est. Dans les années qui suivent, dix autres jeunes mathematicians connaîtront le même sort.

During the bloodiest weeks of the history of France, between the 22th of August and the 20th of October 1914, twelve mathematicians, all former students of the École Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm, in Paris, all of them agrégés of mathematics and, for the most part, authors of works reported, published and reviewed in the bibliographic repertory, the “Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik” (JFM), are killed on the battlefield of the North and the East. In the following years, ten other young mathematicians will suffer the same fate. (p. 7, my transl. )

In 1923, built thanks to a subscription, the Monument aux morts de l’École Normale Superiéure [Monument to the Victims of the École Normale Superiéure] in Rue de l’Ulm, by the sculptor Paul Landowski, was inaugurated.

Out of $239$ normaliens whose name appears on the monument to the victims, $22$ are agrégés of mathematics.

Below the Tableau that gives the list of those mathematicians who died in the First World War: as the table shows, fourteen of them died in 1914, four in 1915, three in 1916 and another, Paul Viple, some days after the Armistice, because of the injuries sustained on the 25th of October 1918. (source $[1]$, p. 10)

enter image description here

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We can notice the name of René Gateaux, whose name is known for the Gateux derivative, and whose works on functional analysis impressed the famous Italian mathematician Vito Volterra. $$\;$$

Below an image of the Monument to the Victims of the École Normal Supérieure:

enter image description here


References

$[1]$ Aubin, David, L’élite sous la mitraille. Les normaliens, les mathématiques et la Grande Guerre, 1900-1925, Editions Rue d’Ulm/Presse de l’École normale supériueure, 2018.

$[2]$ Aubin, David, ‘Des mathématiciens sous la Grande Guerre’, https://www.pourlascience.fr/sd/histoire-sciences/des-mathematiciens-sous-la-grande-guerre-20451.php

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Sophie Germaine and hypatia.Sophie Germaine died at the age of 55 due to breast cancer. Hypatia was brutally murdered by a mob of Christian fanatics. They pulled her from her carriage on a street in Alexandria, dragged her to a church, stripped her naked, beat her to death and/or flayed her, tore off her limbs, and burned her remains.Damascius adds that they also cut out her eyeballs.

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    $\begingroup$ It is “Sophie Germain”, not “Sophie Germaine”, and I don't see why dying of breast cancer at 55 would be more tragic than, say, Riemann dying of tuberculosis at 39 or Sofya Kovalevskaya dying of influenza and pneumonia at 41. On the other hand, I fully agree that Hypatia should be mentioned here. $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ But beware. Many stories of Hypatia are fictional. The prevous answer to this question by Gerry Meyerson says... "(although we're straying into legend here)". $\endgroup$ Jan 21 at 14:52
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