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Archives Spotlight: The Walter Feit Papers

The Walter Feit Papers

By Nikki Thomas

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

Walter Feit

Walter Feit, 1988. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Walter Feit Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) has recently processed the papers of Austrian-born mathematician Walter Feit, a pure mathematician who contributed to algebra, geometry, topology, number theory, and logic and who coauthored one of the most influential papers ever written on finite group theory. Sidnie Feit, Walter's widow, donated the papers and provided a detailed initial inventory.

Feit was born in Vienna in 1930. When he was eight years old, Feit's parents placed him on the last KinderTransport train allowed to evacuate Jewish children from Austria to Britain. The train left just two days before World War II broke out in 1939.

Feit attended high school in England and became passionate about mathematics. In 1946, he left England for Florida and lived with his aunt and uncle. The fall after his arrival in the United States, Feit entered the University of Chicago, and earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1951. In 1955, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan under the supervision of Richard Brauer and, after Brauer moved to Harvard, Robert Thrall.

Feit began his career in mathematics in 1953, accepting a position as an instructor at Cornell. There he worked on his 1963 paper with John G. Thompson, "Solvability of Groups of Odd Order," which is widely regarded as the most influential paper ever written on finite group theory. Ronald Solomon (pdf) described it as "a moment in the evolution of finite group theory analogous to the emergence of fish onto dry land." Feit and Thompson won the Cole Prize in Algebra for this work.

Correspondence from Thompson to Feit

Early correspondence from Thompson to Feit regarding their cooperative paper "Solvability of Groups of Odd Order," ca. 1960. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Walter Feit Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

In the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Thompson praised Feit's precision and subtlety in his work on the solvability of groups of odd order and credited him with identifying a flaw in their paper after a "false dawn" of a few days when they thought they had completed their proof. Thompson believes that if not for Feit's crucial realization, they would have submitted the faulty paper and not regained the momentum to correct it.

In 1964, Feit moved to Yale, where he remained for 40 years until his retirement in 2003. While his most famous result is the solvability of groups of odd order, he wrote and published extensively over the years, working in finite group theory and modular character theory. Feit passed away in 2004.

Informal note between Feit and Thompson

Informal note between Feit and Thompson demonstrating their continued friendship well after their joint paper was published, November 17, 1982. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Walter Feit Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

Feit was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also served as vice president of the International Mathematical Union and editor of several journals, including 15 years as managing editor of the Journal of Algebra. His 60th and 65th birthdays were celebrated with conferences in his honor, as was his retirement in 2003.

The Walter Feit Papers collection contains a wealth of correspondence between Feit and Thompson, primarily mathematical in nature, but also covering more personal topics. Papers, preprints, and reprints make up a substantial part of the collection, although most reprints are included in duplicate, when available. Of particular biographical relevance are the materials related to Walter Feit's memorial service, as they include memoirs of his life in Vienna and England. A digital version of Walter Feit's memorial service, including many photographs and information about his life, can be found online here.

Nikki Thomas was an archival assistant 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.