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Archives Spotlight: The Isaac Jacob Schoenberg Papers

The Isaac Jacob Schoenberg Papers

By Carol Mead

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the August/September 2007 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) has made available the papers of Isaac "Iso" Schoenberg (1903-1990), known for his work in approximation theory and splines. The papers consist of correspondence, class notes from his student days, research and teaching notes, and personal documents. A finding aid is available online.

Correspondence is one highlight of the collection. Schoenberg corresponded with some of the foremost mathematicians of the twentieth century: Harald Bohr, Issai Schur, Alexander Ostrowski, Edmund Landau (Schoenberg's father-in-law), Paul Erdös, George Pólya, John R. Kline, and Emil Grosswald. There are letters between Schoenberg and his family, including his mother, sister, brother-in-law, Stefan Wolpe, and composer Joseph Marx. Many of the letters, notes, and documents are written in Romanian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, or Russian.

Another highlight is Schoenberg's extensive research and teaching notes, which range from his student days to his later life and are handwritten, revealing a meticulous mind.

Schoenberg was born in Galatz, Romania. The family moved to Jassy, Romania, in 1910. His father, Jacob Schoenberg, was an accountant, and his mother, Rachel Segal, a poet. His parents' devotion to Zionism provided an important influence for Schoenberg throughout his life. His mother spoke frequently at public meetings and, in the 1920s, acted as a delegate in several Zionist World Congresses. His father helped establish agricultural stations in Palestine for young Jewish boys and girls. Throughout his life, Schoenberg was active in Jewish causes, including helping family and friends escape from Europe during the Holocaust.

In 1922, Schoenberg received his M.A. at the University of Jassy. From 1922 to 1925, he continued his studies in Germany, where he spent three semesters at Göttingen and three in Berlin. He studied under Landau, Schur, and Ostrowski. In 1926, Jassy awarded him a Ph.D. Two years later, in 1928, Landau arranged a visit for Schoenberg to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which Landau helped to establish), from which Schoenberg returned in 1930. That same year, he married Landau's daughter Charlotte (Dolly). He remarried in 1950, after Charlotte's death in 1949.

Page from Schoenberg's notebook

Page from Schoenberg's notebook containing notes from a course taught by Edmund Landau. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The I.J. Schoenberg Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

When Schoenberg was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship in 1930, he embarked on a new life in the United States. He moved around the country, studying first at the University of Chicago, then Harvard, and, from 1933 to 1935, Princeton, where he worked on distance geometry and became a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study. After Princeton, he taught at Swarthmore, Colby, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he stayed from 1941 to 1965, with interruptions for sabbaticals and other projects.

Between 1943 and 1946, Schoenberg joined other mathematicians in the war effort in Aberdeen, Maryland. He refined computations of projectile trajectories on the ENIAC, with what he called cardinal spline interpolation and cardinal spline smoothing. He then settled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he taught until his retirement in 1973.

Schoenberg remained active in mathematics and pursued other interests after he retired. He was a guest lecturer at various institutions, wrote papers, continued to referee as he had throughout his career for the Journal of Approximation Theory, and, in the 1980s, entered the Madison city sculpture contest with a submission he created using a mathematical model, the drawings for which are in the collection.

Schoenberg's outdoor sculpture design

One of Schoenberg's drawings of his outdoor sculpture design. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The I.J. Schoenberg Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist:, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.