COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY RECORD November 12, 1993 Vol. 19 No. 10
LIPMAN BERS, 79, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST, DIES
Lipman Bers, the Columbia mathematician and human rights activist
who helped obtain the release of several prominent Soviet
dissidents in the 1970s, died at New Rochelle Hospital, New
Rochelle, N.Y., on Oct. 29 at the age of 79.
He had been ill with Parkinson's Disease and had suffered strokes,
according to his son. He was a resident of New Rochelle.
DAVIES PROFESSOR
Bers, the Davies Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Columbia,
was a well-known activist on behalf of Soviet dissident
mathematicians and founded the Committee on Human Rights of the
National Academy of Sciences. "His experiences in Europe motivated
his activism in the human rights movement," said his son, Victor
Bers, a professor of classics at Yale.
On several occasions in the 1970s, he lobbied the government of
the Soviet Union to release prominent mathematicians. He was an
organizer of the International Defense Committee of Mathematicians
and helped obtain the release of Soviet mathematician Yuri
Shikhanovich in 1974.
At the request of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, he
organized mathematicians attending a Vancouver conference in 1974
to petition Premier Alexei Kosygin for the release of Soviet
mathematician Leonid Plyushch. In 1981, he wrote to "The New York
Times" of his concern for Sakharov, then being held in prison.
Bers extended an invitation to Valentin Turchin, a Soviet
dissident and head of the Moscow branch of Amnesty International,
to teach at Columbia. Turchin, a physicist who specialized in
computer languages, accepted and taught in the spring of 1979 as
an adjunct associate professor of mathematical statistics. He was
later a research fellow at the Courant Institute of Mathematics at
N.Y.U.
When two prominent mathematicians, the brothers David and Gregory
Chudnovsky, sought in 1977 to emigrate from the Soviet Union, they
lost their research posts in Kiev and their elderly parents were
badly beaten.
Bers began an international campaign to convince the Soviet
government to allow the brothers to leave, and enlisted the
support of the Committee of Concerned Scientists and political
figures such as Senator Henry Jackson. The brothers were granted
visas and in 1978 came to Columbia to assume posts as associate
research scientists.
As a teacher, "he was exceptionally inspiring," Troels Jorgensen,
professor and chairman of mathematics at Columbia, said. Almost 50
graduate students received their doctorates under his direction,
at Columbia and elsewhere, and he encouraged women to pursue
academic careers in mathematics.
"He is known for his breadth of knowledge, depth of insight and
speaking wit," wrote Masatake Kuranishi, who succeeded Bers as
Davies Professor, in a letter nominating him for the New York City
Award for Science and Technology.
In presenting the award to Bers in 1985, Mayor Edward I. Koch
cited his "influential and creative contribution to modern
mathematics, his inspiring guidance to generations of students and
his tireless campaign in support of the human rights of persecuted
scientists throughout the world."
Bers published nearly 100 research papers in mathematics journals
and was internationally known for his work in mathematical
analysis and geometry. His earliest work concerned the study of
differential equations and their applications, for example, in the
dynamics of gases.
He also developed the important theory of pseudoanalytic
functions. Perhaps his greatest contributions were to the theory
of quasiconformal mappings and their application to the theory of
Riemann surfaces and Kleinian groups. In his later years, he was a
leader in this field, making it one of the most active and
successful disciplines in modern mathematics.
He chaired the Committee on Support of Research in the
Mathematical Sciences, a group of scholars who produced a report
for the National Academy of Sciences that in 1969 concluded the
United States was a world leader in mathematics teaching and
research. The report portrayed mathematics as a "leading wedge" of
the nation's scientific effort and called for increased funding.
LATVIA NATIVE
Bers was a native of Riga, Latvia, where he attended elementary
and secondary schools and the University of Latvia. The son of
politically active Jews, he protested against the government that
took power in May 1934 and was pursued by the Latvian police. He
escaped to Czechoslovakia and completed his mathematics training
at Charles University in Prague, earning a doctorate in 1938.
That was the year of the Munich Pact, and Bers fled to Paris and
then, in 1940, ten days before the German Occupation, to the
United States.
He was a research associate at Brown during World War II and then
joined the faculties, successively, of Syracuse (1945-49), the
Institute for Advanced Study (1949-51), and N.Y.U. (1951-64). Bers
joined Columbia in 1964 as a professor of mathematics and served
as department chairman from 1972 to 1975.
He was named Davies Professor in 1973 and Davies Professor
Emeritus in 1982. He served as special professor at Columbia from
1982 to 1984. He took a part-time position as visiting professor
at the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1985.
The Columbia mathematician was a member of the National Academy of
Sciences and was chairman of the Mathematics Section from 1967 to
1970.
He served as chairman of the Division of Mathematical Sciences of
the National Research Council (1969-71), president of the American
Mathematical Society (1975-77) and chairman of the U.S. National
Committee on Mathematics (1977-81).
He was named Guggenheim Fellow in 1978 and received the Human
Rights Award of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1986.
In addition to his son, Victor, of Hamden, Conn., he is survived
by his wife of 55 years, Mary Kagan Bers, a half-sister, Shelly
Spungin of Rehovoth, Israel, a daughter, Ruth Shapiro of New York
City, five granddaughters, among them Alice Bers, a 1993 graduate
of Columbia College, and one great-grandson.
A memorial service will be held Sun., Dec. 5, at 2:00 P.M, in
Altschul Auditorium, 417 International Affairs Building.