By G. Waldo Dunnington
Washington and Lee University
Reprinted from The Scientific Monthly, May,
1927, vol. XXIV, Pages 402-414
[Click on figures for a larger image]
On April 30,
1927, fell the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the
birth of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the mightiest mathematician
since the day of Sir Isaac Newton. Indeed some writers
have ranked him as the equal of the latter, but this question
had better be left undecided, since Gauss himself would
be the first to give place to Newton, to whom he always
applied the adjective summus. Gauss has been
called the "prince of mathematicians" and "Archimedes
of the nineteenth century."
It seems that
the higher the genius of a man, the later does a definitive
biography of him appear, notwithstanding the recent flood
of biographies. Several monographs in German have
been published, but as yet no definitive biography of Gauss
has appeared. A committee of scholars at the University
of Göttingen is still engaged in editing the works of this
scientist, and in studying notes left at his death.
In the rooms he formerly occupied there has been fitted
up a Gauss-archive.
Gauss was born on February 13, 1744, and assisted his father
in business at Brunswick, Germany. On April 28, 1768,
he married Dorothea Emerenzia Warnecken Solerich, and to
this union was born one son, Johann George Heinrich, on
January 14, 1769. The mother died on September 5,
1775, aged thirty years. Gebhard Dietrich married
(on April 25, 1776) Dorothea Bentze, the daughter of Christopher
Bentze, a stone mason in Velpke, a small village near Brunswick.
Their only child, Carl Friedrich Gauss, was born on April
The house where
this important event occurred has been well preserved.
The late George Hieb was largely responsible for the establishment
of a room in this house at No. 30 Wilhelmsstrassee (formerly
Wendengraben), where one may see all sorts of Gauss relics,
such as furniture, letters, books, photographs of his near
relatives, and many descendants.
reached the ripe old age of ninety-seven and spent the last
twenty-two years of her life under the loving care of her
son at the Göttingen observatory. Gauss and his father
never had any quarrels, but in his home Gebhard Dietrich
was often dominating and uncouth. He died on April
Gauss' own story, his mother could not tell him the exact
day on which he was born; she only knew that the birthday
fell on Wednesday, eight days before Ascension. This
circumstance was the occasion of his discovering the formula
by which one can reckon the day of the month on which Easter
falls, for any year.
He often said
that he could count before he could talk. Many stories
are told of his precocity. At the age of seven, in
1784, he was sent to school, and for two years instructed
by Büttner in reading and writing, with nothing as yet appearing
to distinguish him especially from his fellow pupils.
However, when he reached the arithmetic class he soon attracted
the attention of Büttner.
Martin Bartels was Büttner's assistant, and a young mathematician
of no mean ability. He took a great interest in this
promising young child, furnished him the necessary books
and taught him the theory of infinite series and analysis.
In 1788, young Gauss entered the gymnasium; here he showed
great ability in the ancient languages. Through Bartels,
Privy Councillor von Zimmerman informed the Duke of Brunswick,
Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand, in 1791, about the case of Gauss,
whose father was opposed to the continuance of his education.
The duke resolved to furnish further means for the child's
As a protégé
of the duke , Gauss entered the Collegium Carolinum in 1792.
There he learned modern languages and continued his study
of the ancient languages. Even at his age this youth
carried on private mathematical researches during this period.
In 1795, Gauss entered the University of Göttingen, still
undecided whether to devote his life to mathematics or philology.
On March 30, 1796, one event, more than any other, enabled
him to decide this question, viz., the discovery
of a method of inscribing a regular polygon of seventeen
sides in a circle, with straightedge and compasses.
Gauss always considered this one of his greatest discoveries,
possibly due to the fact that it had escaped the eyes of
mathematicians for two thousand years. The complete
theory of circle-division and primes was elaborated in his
immortal work, "Disquisitiones arithmeticae" (1801).
This treatise is widely conceded to be the greatest piece
of human ingenuity since the publication of Newton's "Principia."
The visitor to the park in Brunswick to-day can see on the
Gauss monument there a regular polygon of seventeen sides
engraved on the base. This monument is by Schaper.
In a letter to
Schumacher, Gauss says that he had used the method of least
squares since 1794. On of Gauss' student friends was
Johann Joseph Anton Ide, also from Brunswick; he became
professor of mathematics at the University of Moscow, and
died there in 1806. However his most intimate
friend was Wolfgang Bolyai, a Hungarian who was somewhat
older than Gauss. They would take long walks together,
discussing metaphysical views on mathematics. A frequent
topic of conversation was Euclid's axiom of parallels; many
prominent scientists had made attempts to prove this axiom.
It later occurred that Bolyai's son Johann published a little
volume on non-euclidean geometry. Gauss read this,
praised it highly, said that the contents coincided with
his own investigations, and declared that he was glad to
have been anticipated in this field by the son of his old
friend. The correspondence between Bolyai and
Gauss continued up to the death of the latter.
On July 16, 1799,
Gauss received his doctorial degree; the thesis topic was:
"Demonstratio nova theorematis omnem functionem algebraicam
rationalem integram unius variabilis in factores reales
primi vel secundi gradus resolvi psse." This
was the first rigorous proof of the fundamental theorem
of algebra, which he had already discovered in October,
1797. He gave two new proofs in 1815 and 1816; on
July 16, 1849, at the celebration of his fiftieth anniversary
of attaining the doctorate, Gauss gave the first proof of
1799 in altered form.
On New Year's
day, 1801, Piazzi in Palermo discovered a star of the eighth
magnitude, which he thought was a new comet. Piazzi's
excellent observations showed that this body moved in a
circular orbit, rather than a parabolic orbit, as required
for a comet, between Mars and Jupiter. The astronomer
Olbers, an intimate friend of Gauss, rediscovered this planet
and informed him about it. He at once set to work
to calculate the orbit from the given data, according to
Kepler's laws. Suffice it to say, he formulated a
method of computing elliptic orbits, which placed
him in the first rank of astronomers for all time.
This asteroid was later named Ceres. In the summer
of 1802 he took observations of Pallas. The direct
outcome of this work in astronomy was the publication at
Hamburg in 1809 of his "Theoria motus corporum coelestium
in sectionibus conicis solem ambientium." for
this epoch making work he received the Lalande prize of
the French Academy in 1810. In 1802 the Czar of Russia
had attempted to secure Gauss as director of the observatory
at the Petrograd Academy and later efforts were made to
secure him for Berlin and Vienna, but all these overtures
After his return
from Göttingen, Gauss was a frequent visitor at the home
of George Carl Ritter in Brunswick. Here he became
acquainted with Johanna Osthoff in 1803; she was the daughter
of Christian Ernst Osthoff, a man of moderate means, proprietor
of a local tannery. Johanna was the
only child, born on May 8, 1780, the pride of her parents,
spirited, kind, happy and gifted with understanding.
from the very beginning Gauss felt himself attracted to
her, and on July 12, 1804, wrote her the following letter:
My true friend,
receive favorably the fact that I pour out my heart, in
writing, before you, about an important matter, regarding
which I have found no proper opportunity to mention up
to the present.
me say it from the fullness of my heart, that I have a
heart for your silent angelic virtues, an eye for the
noble features which make your face a true mirror of these
virtues. You, dear modes soul, are so far removed
from all vanity that you yourself do not realize you own
value; you don't know how richly and kindly heaven has
endowed you. But my heart knows your worth
-- O! more than it can bear with repose. For a long
time it has belonged to you. You won't repel it?
Can you give me yours? Dear, can you grasp the proffered
hand, do it gladly? My happiness hangs on the answer
to this question. Indeed, at present I can't
offer you riches or splendor. Still, dear, I can
not have erred as to your beautiful soul -- you are certainly
as indifferent to riches and splendor as I am. But
I have more than I need for myself alone, enough for two
young people to start a carefree, agreeable life, not
thinking at all of my prospects for the future.
The best that I can offer you is a true heart full of
the warmest love for you.
beloved friend, whether this heart completely satisfies
you, whether you can reply just as sincerely to its feelings,
whether you can contentedly make the journey of life hand
in hand with me, and decide soon.
I have placed
before you, darling, the desires of my heart in artless,
but candid words. I could have done it in entirely
different words. I could make for you a portrait
of your charms, which you, although it would be nothing
more than the truth, would have received as flattery;
with burning colors I could make for you a picture of
my love -- to be sure, there I would be allowed only the
expression of my feeling -- a portrait of the bliss or
disconsolation which await me ever after you have accepted
or rejected my desires. But I didn't want to do
that. At least, don't mistake the pureness of my
unselfish love. I don't want to bribe your decision.
In the sincerest concern of your life you must not allow
any unusual considerations to influence you. You
are not to bring a sacrifice to my happiness. Your
own happiness alone must guide your decision. Yes,
dearest, so warmly do I even love you, that only possession
of you can make me happy, if you are of the same feeling.
have exposed to you the inner part of my heart:
passionately and in suspense am I waiting for your answer.
With all my heart,
C. F. Gauss
Brunswick, 12 July, 1804.
passed before the wooer received an answer to this letter.
Johanna loved Gauss, but through idle gossip had heard the
name of a wealthy young lady connected with that of Gauss.
This report having been corrected, the two became engaged
on November 22, 1804; three days later the young lover said
to a friend, "Life stands like an everlasting
spring with new glittering colors before me."
On October 9, 1805, Gauss and Johanna were married and occupied
the apartment he had had as a bachelor at Ritter's house.
Their first child,
Joseph, was born on August 21, 1806; there are reasons for
believing that he was his father's favorite child.
Joseph became a Hanoverian artillery officer, and later
visited the United States in the late thirties, then became
Oberbaurath and member of the department of Hanoverian railroads
and telegraphs, his death occurring on July 4, 1973.
He married Sophie Erythropel, daughter of a physician in
Stade, born on January 20, 1818, and died on April 10, 1883.
One son was born to this union, Carl August Gauss, April
10, 1849, who married Anna Ebmeier, of Stolzenau.
Their eldest son, Dr. Carl Joseph Gauss, born on October
29, 1875, is ordentlicher professor and director of the
Women's Clinic at the University of Würzburg, Bavaria.
He is noted for work in the field of X-ray, painless childbirth
and twilight sleep. Carl August was the only grandchild
of the mathematician living in Germany and died at his home
in Hameln on January 22, 1927; his younger son Wilhelm lived
at home with him, and his daughter is the wife of Judge
Noeller in Gummersbach.
On November 21,
1807, Gauss and his family settled in Göttingen, where he
had accepted the professorship which was to continue as
his occupation for the remainder of his life. His
second child, Minna Gauss, was born there on February 29,
1808. In 1830 she married the celebrated Orientalist
and theologian, George August Heinrich von Ewald; they moved
to Tübingen, where Ewald had accepted a position as professor
of theology in 1837, and she died there on August 12, 1840,
leaving no children. Her death was a severe blow to
her father, who loved this daughter deeply; Minna is said
to have resembled her father very much in personality.
Ewald later returned to Göttingen, married the second time
a Miss Schleiermacher, and was survived by her and one daughter,
his death occurring on May 4, 1875.
The third child
of Gauss was born on September 10, 1809, named Louis, and
Frau Johanna died on October 11. The infant died on
March 1, 1810, and on April, Gauss became engaged to Minna
Waldeck, the second and youngest daughter of Councillor
Waldeck, a professor in Göttingen University. She
had been a close friend of Frau Johanna. There were
three children of this marriage:
(1) Eugene, born on July 29, 1811, was
educated at the University of Göttingen; he came to America
in 1831, enlisted in the army, and was sent to Fort Snelling,
Minnesota. at the expiration of his term of enlistment
he became connected with the American Fur Company, later
settling in St. Charles, Missouri, where he lived for many
years. His death occurred on July 4, 1896, at his
farm in Boone County, Missouri. He had various business
interests, such as lumber, flour milling, etc. On
February 14, 1844, he married Henrietta Fawcett (born on
February 3, 1817), whose family had moved to Missouri some
years before from Rockingham County, Virginia. To
this union seven children were born, three of whom are now
living. Henrietta Gauss died in November, 1909.
Eugene Gauss was a Christian gentleman of high moral character
and had intellectual qualities of a type similar to that
of his father.
Wilhelm, born on October 23, 1813, in Göttingen; he came
to America in 1837, and had married Louisa Aletta Fallenstein,
a niece of the astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, shortly
before sailing from Germany. He stopped at St. Charles
for a short time, but moved to Glasgow, Missouri, where
he engaged in business, later living on a farm near Brunswick,
Missouri, but finally locating in St. Louis, in 1855, where
he engaged in the wholesale mercantile business up until
his death there in 1879. He was a very affectionate
man, generous and possessed of splendid spiritual and intellectual
powers. Two of his sons are living at present, one
in Colorado and one in Missouri.
born on June 19, 1816, and died childless on February 11,
1880; after the death of Frau Minna she assumed charge of
the household, and with love and tenderness she faithfully
cared for her father until his death. In 1856 she
married an artist named Constantine Staufenau, with whom
she had corresponded uninterruptedly for fourteen years.
They lived in Dresden; Staufenau married again after her
death, and his second wife returned in her will the property
that had come from the Gauss family.
In 1808 Heinrich
Christian Schumacher had come to Göttingen to study mathematics
and astronomy; he and Gauss became the warmest of friends
and scientific collaborators, their correspondence continuing
up to Schumacher's death in December, 1850. In 1810
Gerling, Nicolai, Möbius and Encke came to Göttingen, which
became the mathematical mecca of Europe. Needless
to say, the fame of this town has rested on the Gauss tradition.
He did not allow students to take notes in class on his
lectures, for fear they would lose the thread of his argument.
These men became very fond of their great teacher and later
distinguished themselves in their chosen fields. The
students would be seated around the large table in rather
informal style, and Gauss would take great care to explain
in detail every step in the reasoning -- something which
a reader does not always find in his published works.
On several occasions he complained of lack of ability or
of preparation in his pupils, but these occasions are rare.
Perhaps his most celebrated pupil was George Friedrich Bernhard
Riemann, 1826-1866, the geometer, whose paper Gauss chose
from the three themes submitted in 1854 to be read before
the Philosophical Faculty. This monograph, "Ueber
die Hypothesen welche der Geometrie zu Grunde liegen,"
immortalized Riemann's name in the discovery of non-euclidean
geometry, and, indirectly, reflected to the credit of Gauss,
his teacher, who had been meditating on the subject for
some years, as we know from his letters and other evidence,
although he never published anything on the subject.
Riemann succeeded Dirichlet (who was Gauss's successor)
in 1859 as professor of mathematics at Göttingen, which
position he held until his death. It is said that
Gauss often gave his students skillfully contrived mnemonic
schemes to enable them to memorize very involved mathematical
formulae. As for himself, we know that his genius
had no difficulty in such matters, and that he also delighted
in long, mental or written, arithmetical calculations, as
did his son Eugene; both exhibited the utmost patience.
About 1810 Gauss
interested himself in optics and also dioptrics. His
results and formulae found practical application after his
time. In 1840 he published his "Diotrische Untersuch
ungea," and in 1843 he presented before the Royal Society
of Göttingen, of which he was director, his "Dioptrische
Studien." In 1812 he had published his treatise
on hypergeometric series, and among other achievements placed
the imaginary on a firm basis.
In 1818 Gauss
was commissioned to carry out the triangulation of the kingdom
of Hanover, following similar work of his friend Schumacher
in Holstein, and later for all Denmark. This work
occupied his time rather extensively from 1821 until 1826
and to some extent as late as 1848. This fact was
lamented by some writers who felt that too much of his time
was taken by trivial and routine matters which could have
been handled by one whose time was not so valuable.
He was assisted by Major Müller and his son Joseph Gauss.
The science of geodesy reached a new point of development
through his labors in this field. There were
also several rather concrete results of this undertaking.
The old geodetic instruments were unsatisfactory, and one
afternoon (1821) while Gauss and his son Eugene were walking
along, the father, noticing the light of the setting sun
reflected from the window-pane of a distant house, thought
of the heliotrope; in the simple form, this instrument consists
of a plane mirror 4", 6" or 8" in diameter,
which may be rotated about a horizontal or a vertical axis.
This mirror is at the station to be observed, the sun's
rays reflected by it impinging on the distant observing
telescope. The heliotrope is used in geodesy for observing
stations that are far removed from each other, is pleasant
to operate, and to the observer it appears to be a star
of the first or second magnitude.
In July, 1821,
Gauss measured with this instrument the classic geodetic
triangle, Hohenhagen, Brocken and Inselberg. To-day
there is a lofty Gauss-tower on the Hohenhagen to commemorate
the work of this scientist. In it there is a splendid
marble bust of Gauss by the late Professor Gustav Eberlein,
a Gauss-stone or marker which he used in his geodetic observations
there, and also the first heliotrope. It is interesting
to note that William II, as Kaiser, gave 4,000 marks toward
the building of this tower. As final results of the
geodetic work. we may consider "Disquisitiones
generales circa superficies curvas" (1827) and the
two "Abhandlungen über Gegenstände der höheren Geodäsie"
In the summer
of 1831 Gauss had begun to study crystallography, but this
subject did not make a great appeal to him, notwithstanding
the fact that he made some valuable contributions to the
science. At a scientific meeting in Berlin in 1828
he had met the young physicist, Wilhelm Eduard Weber, who,
in 1831, accepted the professorship at Göttingen.
Both were devoted to their own subjects, and they complemented
each other. They collaborated in 1833 in producing
the electro-magnetic telegraph, the signals being given
by the deflection of a galvanometer needle. The wires
extended from the observatory to the steeple of St. John's,
and from there to Weber's physics laboratory. The
inhabitants of Göttingen saw Wilhelm Gauss helping his father
and Weber string up the wires over the house-tops, and upon
their learning that it was to carry an electrical current,
they became excited, so that Weber had to write to the magistrate
to explain the purpose. The line was destroyed by
lightning in 1845. It is beyond the projected scope
of this article to describe in detail the telegraph which
they used, but is sufficient to say that they devised an
alphabet, and could send messages accurately, with a speed
of about seven or eight words a minute, by using an induced
current. Germany has always been proud of these two
men for such an early achievement. Gauss lived to
see some of the development of telegraphy, and always took
great pleasure in noting it. His system was readily
applied by Lord Kelvin to ocean telegraphy. The last
letter of Gauss, written to Sir David Brewster, was about
the early telegraph.
It is significant to note that both Gauss and Morse attached
military importance to the telegraph. The former,
in a letter to Schumacher, mentions the fact that the Russian
czar might transmit his orders immediately from Petrograd
to Odessa; Morse wrote a letter to the new republic of Texas,
offering the government his recent invention of the telegraph,
pointing out the military advantages of such a contrivance.
It was, of course, not accepted.
Gauss and Weber
investigated the science of magnetism very thoroughly, and
laid the foundation for the modern study of it. They
formulated fundamental laws and theories in this field.
Two magnetic units are named in their honor. Through
their efforts and the efforts of Humboldt were established
observatories for terrestrial magnetism. Gauss invented
the bifilar magnetometer which is used to measure changes
of horizontal force; in the mechanical constructions he
was ably assisted by Johann von Lamont, a Scotch Jesuit,
then living in Germany. Regular magnetic observations
were started in 1834; already in 1833 gauss had published
his "Intensitas vis magneticae terrestris ad mensuram
absolutam revocata." Together with Weber he published
in 1840 an "Atlas des Erdmagnetismus"; then
came the important "Resultate aus den Beobachtungen
des magnetischen Vereins" (1837-1843).
On April 18,
1830, frau Dorothea Gauss, the mother of Carl Friedrich,
died; she had always been very proud of her only son, and
he showed the greatest affection for her. She had
become blind several years before death, but this did not
stop her usual activity. Gauss was an excellent father
to his family; he loved social intercourse and conversation;
in his home he was always glad whenever the simple meal
was accompanied by some discussion or poetic subject.
In the family nothing was too unimportant; for instance,,
he kept in a note-book the dates when his children cut their
teeth, and he kept a register of all the keys to the rooms
of his observatory and his home. He was very fond
of music, especially singing. Whenever he heard a
beautiful song he would go and write it down. Frequently
he played whist. He had a subtle, keen sense of humor
which might manifest itself in friendly satire. In
his later days Gauss would go daily to the so-called literary
museum to consult the many newspapers there, where he was
known as a Tiger for News. What interested
him especially was political and financial news. He
was always solicitous about the welfare of his country,
particularly during the Revolution of 1848, probably because
he thought back to his experiences during the Napoleonic
wars; he used to say, "Mundus vult decipi."
Gauss knew how to invest his money well, unlike many men
of science, leaving a large estate at his death. It
is said that the czar of Russia once offered him a post
as minister of finance, and also that he once refused an
offer of a title of nobility. He never wore any of
the many decorations which the different governments had
showered on him. His daughter Theresa, in a letter
on the celebration of his fifty years' doctorial jubilee,
bewails the fact that none of his beloved sons could be
with him on his day of triumph.
Gauss did not
like to travel, and from 1828 (his trip to Berlin) until
his death, only once did he spend a night away from the
observatory, it being in 1854 when he attended the opening
of a railroad and saw a locomotive for the first time.
About 1840 he
studied Sanskrit, but only for a short while. He was
acquainted with the modern European languages and could
speak many of them. In his sixty-second year he took
up the study of Russian, and in two years he had mastered
it completely, being able to speak it and to do his correspondence
to Russia in the native tongue. He had probably been
urged to do this by a desire to read Lobachevsky's work
on non-euclidean geometry in the original. He read
English often, in his last days completing Gibbon's "Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire," and the works of Sir
Walter Scott, which he greatly admired.
all philosophical ideas as subjective; he was possessed
of great religious tolerance, which must not be confused
with indifference. He also held that one is not justified
in disturbing another's religious belied, in which they
find consolation for earthly sorrows in time of trouble.
The striving after truth and righteousness were the foundations
of Gauss's religion. He believed firmly in the immortality
of the spiritual individuality, in a personal permanence
after death, in a last order of things, in an eternal, righteous,
omniscient and omnipotent God. In his own life he
exemplified these teachings, being a man of great generosity,
kindness and meekness of spirit. His neighbors applied
to him the phrase: "Modest and simple, but worthy
Gauss had excellent
health, a strong constitution, had never been seriously
ill, but in the last two years of his life he suffered from
insomnia and several other ailments of old age. At
last dropsy and heart failure developed, and he died on
February 23, 1855, surrounded by relatives and friends.
On the morning of the 26th, amid a large gathering of students,
friends, townspeople, relatives and officials, his funeral
was held; Sartorius Wolfgang von Waltershausen, his close
friend, and Ewald, his son-in-law, delivered the funeral
sermons, and after several hymns, including one of Luther's,
and the chaplain's benediction, he was laid to rest in the
old churchyard near the Albanitor in Göttingen. The
one word GAUSS is engraved on his tombstone, which is unpretentious
and plain -- in keeping with the character of the noble
man. It is a fact interesting to psychologists that
R. Wagner studied the brain of Gauss, and found its weight
to be 1,492 grams and cerebral area equal to 219,588 square
centimeters, in whose highly developed convolutions perhaps
lies the explanation of his genius.
After his death this powerful mathematician was widely honored.
There may be mentioned the Schaper monument in the park
on the Gaussberge in Brunswick, his birthplace, and the
Gauss Bridge in that city. Many streets have been
named for him. In Göttingen, there is the Gauss-Weber
monument, by Professor Hartzer, in honor of their invention
of the telegraph. On the Potsdam bridge in Berlin,
beside Siemens, Helmholtz and Röntgen, stands a masterful
monument of Gauss by Professor Janesch, who has also made
for the Royal Agricultural Ministry in Berlin a marble bust
of Gauss. Another bust is in the Main-Hall (library)
of the University of Göttingen. The ship which made
the South Polar expedition in 1901-1903, under professor
von Drigalski, received the name Gauss. His centenary
was widely celebrated in Germany, many memorial addresses
having been published on April 30, 1877. At the present
time, a Festschrift is to be published in Brunswick
on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of his birth.
After the death
of his mother, Gauss had not been in frequent correspondence
with his brother George Heinrich, who early in life had
been afflicted with severe eye trouble. He had become
a member of the artillery, which was then composed of the
children of the upper class, more than other branches of
the army, and so received better treatment. Outside
the service, which allowed much freedom -- he had to assist
his father in his work. Under these circumstances
there could not be much hope of promotion, and so after
the catastrophe of 1806, he went back home to continue his
father's gardening and casket-making. George Heinrich
died in his eight-sixth year, on August 7, 1854, and Carl
Friedrich wrote the following rather touching letter to
his nephew Gebhard:
I received the sad tidings of your letter of the eighth
with heartfelt sympathy. It was grievous for me
that for several years I had remained without any news
of my brother. As long as Professor Goldschmidt
lived, I was always intouch with Brunswick, because
he was accustomed to journey there twice a year to his
father who was then still living, and then always made
inquiry about the conditions of my brother, and communicated
it to me. But Professor Goldschmidt has been dead now
for several years, just as all the friends of my youth
there. It is the lot of humanity, when one gets
old. I am already in my seventy-eighth year, but
I will not equal my brother, because I have been feeling
the diminishing of my strength for a year. I am unusually
glad that I must infer from your letter that the last
years of my brother's life were alleviated, as much
as the course of events allowed, by the loyal care of
your mother, to whom I ask you to convey my heartfelt
condolences and greetings.
years I have not seen my native city, and even then
for just one day. Now the journey is considerably
shortened by the train, because one can come there from
here via Hildesheim or Hanover in six or seven hours
now, and I suppose in one or tow years, when the side-line
is opened, in half the time. Whether I will survive
until that moment, or whether my strength will permit
me to make use of the train, in order to see my native
city just once again, is questionable. But it
always remains my sincere wish that everything may be
well with you and yours.
Within six months Gauss himself was no longer among the
living. The following letter of his physician, Dr.
Baum, who attended him with unremitting care, written to
Humboldt, is interesting in that it gives us a glimpse of
the last days of the celebrated mathematician:
Göttingen, May 28, 1855
had been obliged to prepare you for the sad news before
the death of our great mathematician, the news, which
is now the more unexpected, struck the more painfully
for that reason: but I was at that time so completely
claimed by the medical care of the venerable man, who
in his last months saw only his daughter and me around
him, besides the many duties of my vocation, that I
therefore ask for indulgence.
As we were
talking in the presence of Professor Dirichlet, whom
we now call our own with happy pride, a great deal about
the last conversations of Mr. Gauss, he urged me to
communicate to Your Excellency that Gauss at the last
often thought of you, and with much love. Your
last letter made him especially happy and he read it
repeatedly and let me read it aloud. When he was
taken unawares by the apprehension that a more advanced
old age might bring to him aggravated complaints, he
said: "then the thought of my Humboldt
consoles me" -- an epithet which I have heard him
apply to no other name. With joy he believed he
recognized your hand in the translation of Arago's Works,
where the number of those men is mentioned to whom a
final judgment belongs regarding exact experiments:
the number in the original is given at about ten, in
the translation at about eight: he thought that
this diminution, which suited him exactly, could have
proceeded only from Your Excellency.
days of his life were often very painful owing to the
aggravated complaint of dropsy, which the hypertrophy
of his heart produced -- but still he always maintained
his freedom and greatness of spirit, the strongest conviction
of his personal permanence, the firmest hope in the
still deeper intelligent insight into the number-relationships,
which God places in matter and which he would perhaps
be able to recognize in the intensive magnitudes, for
he used to say o JeoV ariJmetizei. (God arithmetizes).
Thus he remained
consistent up to the end, so that even in the last weeks
he read through the Book eritis sicut deus, not
without vexation, "for the people would be speaking
about things, all means of judging which they lacked,":but
he put an end to it novertheless, although he thought
it once made a sleepless night for him.
Only in the
last eighteen hours did consciousness leave him, only
now and then did it come back for a short time for an
utterance of love or for a desire -- then silently he
few words be not disagreeable to Your Excellency, these
words, which I wrote in the most respectful and grateful
love, in which I remain even to the end
Your Excellency's most truly devoted
The following words inscribed under the portrait of Gauss
in the Munich Museum best summarize the work of this scientist:
|Sein Geist drang in die tiefsten
Geheimnisse der Zahl, des Taumes, und der Natur;
Er mass den Lauf der Gestirne, die Gestalt und die
Kräfte der Erde;
Die Entwickelung der mathematischen Wissenschaft
eines commenden, Jahrhunderts trug er in sich.
Source: Reprint in the private collection of the
Chambless family. Transcribed to softcopy by Susan
D. Chambless, June, 2000.
Used with permission of American
Association for the Advancement of Science, by
letter dated June 12, 2000.
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