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 VOL. 23, NO. 15FEBRUARY 20, 1998 

Mathematician Samuel Eilenberg, 84


Samuel Eilenberg.

Samuel Eilenberg of Columbia, one of the world’s leading mathematicians and a legendary collector of South Asian art, died Jan. 30 in the Isabella Geriatric Center in New York City. He was 84. The cause of death was cardiac arrest after multiple strokes, said his friend and executor Leon Polsky.

  Eilenberg was University Professor Emeritus at Columbia, where he had taught for more than 35 years. His work created a new discipline of mathematics, algebraic topology, the use of algebra to describe and understand how certain properties of multidimensional forms—such as the number of holes punched through a surface—remain unchanged even when the forms are twisted, bent or stretched. He was a member of the Bourbaki, a French mathematical society dating to 1935 whose members published under the pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki and undertook, with varying success, to publish treatises that would codify all branches of mathematics.

  He is best known for his collaborations with other distinguished mathematicians. With Norman Steenrod in the 1940s, he made sense of a tangled branch of mathematics called homology theory, the study of objects that can be manipulated with algebra. The Eilenberg-Steenrod Axioms for Homology clarified the subject by setting forth four simple properties that could be used to discern when a possibly exotic homology theory was in fact the same as the usual one. Their book, “Foundations of Algebraic Topology,” published in 1952, is still in print.

  He then worked with Henri Cartan to further develop these ideas and founded an area still very much in use today called homological algebra. His longest-running collaboration was with Saunders MacLane. Together they studied a variety of topics in algebraic topology and invented category theory, ubiquitous in modern mathematics.

  Born in Warsaw in 1913, Eilenberg received the Ph.D. from Warsaw University. He came to the United States in 1939 and to the Columbia faculty in 1947. He was twice chairman of the mathematics department and in 1974 was named to Columbia’s highest rank, University Professor. He became an emeritus professor in 1982. The Wolf Foundation in Israel awarded him its Prize in Mathematics in 1986 for his work in algebraic topology and homological algebra.

  Eilenberg became interested in art collecting on a trip to Bombay in the mid-1950s and pursued Asian art partly to relieve his mind of the rigors of math, Polsky said.

  His collection, valued at more than $5 million and acquired over 30 years, included art of Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Central Asia dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 17th century. In 1989, he donated more than 400 valuable sculptures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In turn, the Metropolitan raised, through general funds and with contributions by others, most of the $1.5 million needed to create the Samuel Eilenberg Visiting Professorship of Mathematics at Columbia. Items from Eilenberg’s collection may also be found in the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

  Eilenberg is survived by several cousins. A Columbia memorial service is being planned.