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Archives Spotlight: The Max Dehn Papers

The Max Dehn Papers

By Kristy Sorensen

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the May/June 2005 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

C.L. Siegel article with caricature

C.L. Siegel article* with caricature for 1928 Festschrift in honor of Arthur M. Schoenflies, November 6, 1927. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Max Dehn Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The Max Dehn Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) tell the story of an established Jewish mathematician from Germany leaving his homeland under pressure from the Nazis and finishing his career in the United States, moving from one low-profile faculty position to another. It is not a unique story, but the breadth and detail of the papers collected at the AAM make it an important part of the history of American mathematics.

Dehn earned his doctorate at Göttingen in 1900 under the direction of David Hilbert. He spent the majority of his career in Germany at Frankfurt University, where he served as the chair of Pure and Applied Mathematics from 1921-1935. In Germany, he wrote one of the first systematic expositions of topology and developed important problems on group presentations. He solved one of Hilbert's famous 23 problems, on the congruence of polyhedra. His scope of research included geometry, topology, group theory, and the history of mathematics.

In 1938, he was forced to leave the university by the Nazis. He first took a position in Scandinavia and in 1940 came to the United States through Russia and Japan. After arriving in the United States, Dehn held several temporary appointments including positions at the University of Idaho in Pocatello, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, before becoming the first and only mathematician on the staff of Black Mountain College, an unaccredited creative arts college in North Carolina. Dehn remained in North Carolina until his death in 1952.

The Max Dehn Papers at the AAM include lecture notes by E. Hellinger and correspondence, notebooks, manuscripts of publications, reprints, and lecture and course notes by Dehn. Correspondents include E. Artin, O. Blumenthal, H. Bohr, S. Breuer, C. Caratheodory, M. Kneser, E. Noether, M. Pasch, O. Toeplitz, and E. Zermelo. The majority of the materials are written in German, with some English and French.

Kristy Sorensen served as the archivist at the Archives of American Mathematics until November 2006.

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.

* Mathematician C.L. Siegel wrote this article, "Ã?ber Riemann's arithmetischer Nachlass" ("On Riemann's arithmetical Nachlass"), as part of a tribute to Arthur Schoenflies, whom Siegel had replaced as professor of mathematics at Frankfurt University six years earlier. His colleague Max Dehn, a former assistant of David Hilbert, organized the compilation of the manuscript.