The Pingree Factor

By Emily Gold Boutilier / March / April 2006
April 11th, 2007

David Pingree's death on Friday, November 11, marked the loss of Brown's last remaining full-time faculty member in the Department of the History of Mathematics, a renowned program unlike any other in the world. A scholar of ancient and medieval mathematical and astronomical texts, Pingree had planned to retire at the end of this academic year.

When Pingree joined the University's smallest academic department in 1971, it was twenty-four years old. According to a 1979 BAM article, Pingree and the rest of the department searched for, translated, and edited original mathematical and astronomical texts, and attempted to understand how scientific knowledge spread from one culture to another. Pingree based his work on sources in many languages, including Akkadian, Greek, Sanskrit, and Arabic. His particular expertise was in the mathematics and astronomy found in India and in ancient and medieval astrology.

"Astrology was the practical application of astronomical knowledge," he told the BAM in 1981, when he received a no-strings-attached "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. "Economists today are in exactly the same position as astronomers were then. They are working with a theoretical science, and some of them make their living by making predictions."

Pingree studied classics and Sanskrit at Harvard, where he received bachelor's, master's, and PhD degrees. "I was interested in Greek when I was quite young," he told the BAM, "and I quite early thought that if one was going to do Greek, one ought to do Sanskrit as well."

He became department chairman in 1986. Over the course of his career he received a Guggenheim fellowship and was elected to the American Philosophical Society. A member of many other scholarly organizations, he published more than thirty monographs and more than a hundred book chapters and articles, and served on the editorial boards of many publications. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago.

As the department's sole faculty member, Pingree supervised all of its doctoral students. In 2004, his colleagues and former students presented him with a collection they'd written and edited, Studies of the Exact Sciences in Honour of David Pingree.

A few years ago, the history of mathematics program stopped taking graduate applications, and after Pingree announced his retirement University administrators said they would possibly eliminate the department altogether. This semester a visiting assistant professor is its sole teacher. Officials said they may roll the department's course offerings into the classics department.

Pingree is survived by his wife, Isabelle, a daughter, two brothers, and a sister.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
March / April 2006