Prominent Poles

Kazimierz Kuratowski, Mathematician

Photo of Kazimierz Kuratowski, Mathematician

Born: February 2, 1896, in Warsaw, Poland

Died: June 18, 1980, in Warsaw, Poland

Accomplishments:  Kazimierz Kuratowski's father, Marek Kuratowski (according to one source his name was Kuratow) was a leading lawyer in Warsaw.  His mother was Roza Karzewska.  Poland had been partitioned in 1772 and the south was called Galicia and under Austrian control.  Russia controlled much of the rest of the country and in the years prior to Kuratowski's birth there had been strong moves by Russia to make "Vistula Land," as it was called, be dominated by Russian culture.  In a policy implemented between 1869 and 1874, all secondary schooling was in Russian.  Warsaw only had a Russian language university after the University of Warsaw became a Russian university in 1869.  From 1906, however, the Underground Warsaw University was set up to provide a Polish university education for those prepared to risk teaching and learning in this illegal institution.  Galicia, although under Austrian control, retained Polish culture and was often where Poles from "Vistula Land" went for their education.

When Kuratowski was nine years old the policy of Russian schooling was softened, but although Polish language schools were allowed, a student could not proceed from such a secondary school to university without taking the Russian examinations as an external candidate.  As a consequence most Poles in "Vistula Land" at this time went abroad for their university education. Some went to Galicia where, although under Austrian control, Polish education still flourished.  Kuratowski, however, when he left secondary school, "Gimnazjum Filologiczne Chrzanowskiego" in Warsaw, decided that he wanted to become an engineer.  The University of Glasgow, in Scotland, had an engineering school with a long established history, the chair of engineering being established in 1840.  It rightly appeared to Kuratowski as an outstanding place to study engineering.

After Kuratowski made the decision to study in Glasgow, he matriculated there as a student there in October 1913.  At the end of his first year Kuratowski was awarded the Class Prize in Mathematics.  He then studied chemistry at the Technical College during the summer and returned to Poland for a holiday before starting his second year of study.  However, back in Poland in August 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, returning to Scotland became impossible for Kuratowski.  Although his education was disrupted, one benefit to mathematics was that Kuratowski could no longer study engineering and mathematics would gain enormously.

In August 1915 the Russian forces withdrew from Warsaw.  Germany and Austria-Hungary took control of most of the country and a German governor general was installed in Warsaw.  One of the first moves after the Russian withdrawal was the re-founding of the University of Warsaw and it began operating as a Polish university in November 1915.  Kuratowski was one of the first students to study mathematics when the university reopened.

After graduating in 1919, Kuratowski undertook his doctoral studies working under Janiszewski and Mazurkiewicz and was awarded doctorate in 1921.  He was appointed as a professor at the Technical University of Lwow in 1927.  The mathematicians of Lwow did a great deal of mathematical research in the cafés of the city.  The Scottish Café was the most popular with the mathematicians in general but not with Kuratowski who instead frequented Ludwik Zalewski's Confectionery at 22 Akademicka Street.  It was in the Scottish Café, however, that the famous Scottish Book consisting of open questions posed by the mathematicians working there came into being.  Kuratowski (and Steinhaus) sometimes joined their colleagues in the Scottish Café but he had left Lwow before the mathematicians began writing down the problems in the Scottish Book.  At Lwow, however, Kuratowski worked with Banach and they answered some fundamental problems on measure theory.

In 1934 Kuratowski left Lwow and became professor of mathematics at the University of Warsaw where he spend the rest of his career.  It was now that Kuratowski began to devote his energies to the cause of Polish mathematics rather than to give all his efforts to his research.  In 1936 a committee was set up by the Polish Academy of Learning to look at the ways to move forward Polish science.  Kuratowski became secretary to the mathematics committee and his report was made in 1937.  He recommended: "... to raise applied mathematics to such a standard that it can fulfill its tasks as required by other branches of science, as well as those tasks connected with the problems of the country."  The recommendations of the report were to set up two research institutes, one for pure mathematics and one for applied mathematics, and may have been implemented had it not been for the war.

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 life became extremely difficult.  There was a strategy by the invaders to put an end to the intellectual life of Poland and to achieve this they sent many academics to concentration camps and murdered others.  The Poles had experience of surviving such attacks, however, and they employed the same tactics as they had during the period of Russian domination and organized an underground university in Warsaw.  Kuratowski risked his life to teach in this illegal educational establishment throughout the war.

Between the two world wars Poland had made a remarkable leap forward in mathematical teaching and research.  At the end of World War II the whole educational system was destroyed and had to be completely rebuilt.  Kuratowski now took on the role of leader in this rebuilding process and, through the Polish Mathematical Society of which he was president for eight years immediately following the war, he set about arguing for the implementation of the recommendations of his 1937 report.  The two research institutes, one for pure mathematics and one for applied mathematics, were merged into a plan for a single mathematics institute and accepted in 1948.  Kuratowski was appointed the Director of the Mathematical Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences in 1949, a position he held for 19 years.

Kuratowski also played a major role in the publishing of mathematics in general and Polish mathematics in particular.  He served on the editorial board of Fundamenta Mathematicae from 1928, replacing Sierpinski as editor-in-chief in 1952 and continuing in this role for the rest of his life.  He was also one of the founders and an editor of the important Mathematical Monographs series.  As an ambassador for Polish mathematics, Kuratowski did a remarkable job with many foreign visits and lecture tours.  He lectured in London (1946), Geneva (1948), many universities in the United States during 1948-49, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, Amsterdam, Rome, Peking (1955), Canton (1955), Shanghai (1955), Agra (1956), Lucknow (1956), and Bombay (1956).  All this was during the Stalinist era when travel was restricted, and after travel became easier Kuratowski did indeed take full advantage with many visits to western Europe, Britain, USA, and Canada.

Kuratowski's main work was in the area of topology and set theory.  Other major contributions by Kuratowski were to compactness and metric spaces.  He was the author of Topologie, which was the crowning achievement of the Warsaw School in point set topology.  The first volume of this work was the major source on metric spaces for several decades.  His 1930 work on non-planar graphs is of fundamental importance in graph theory. He also considered the topology of the continuum, the theory of connectivity, dimension theory, and answered measure theory questions.

Kuratowski was honored with prizes and election to academies.  The Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the Hungarian Academy, the Austrian Academy, the Academy of the German Democratic Republic, the Academy of Sciences of Argentina, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Academy of Arts and Letters of Palermo, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh all elected him to membership.  He received honorary degrees from many universities including Glasgow, the Sorbonne, Prague and Wroclaw.

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