Beno Eckmann, 1917–2008

The Mathematical Department of ETH was saddened last week of learning of the death of Beno Eckmann, on Tuesday, Nov. 25, aged 91. He was one of the major historical figures in the department, linking us to the “classical” times of Polya, Weyl, Hopf and others by his long activity and involvement in the international mathematical community. In Zürich, part of his importance has been as the initiator and first director of the Forschungsinstitut für Mathematik in 1964.

He was a student of Heinz Hopf at ETH, obtaining his degree in 1942, and his genealogy lists 73 students and 1040 descendants (!), among whom can be recognized many well-known names from topology (e.g., M. Kervaire, 1956, or G. Mislin, 1968), analytic geometry (H. Grauert, 1956), algebra (e.g, M.A. Knus, 1967) and even probability theory (E. Bolthausen, 1973), and so on. (Part of the genealogy is presented in a more impressive way in this genealogical tree).

Although I didn’t meet him after my arrival in January, my colleagues have told me he was active until quite recently (and indeed, his last research paper on Math Reviews is dated 2004, though it is claimed to originate from a 2002 lecture..). His 90th birthday was celebrated last year at FIM.

Topologists in particular will probably enjoy some of the essays collected in these notes, in particular the reminiscences of the antesagittarian days of algebraic topology. (Apparently, the very first occurence of a “physical” arrow to indicate a map between spaces is to be found in a Research Announcement by W. Hurewicz from 1941).

Published by


I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *