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Struik straddled worlds of mathematics, Marxist politics

When the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology paid tribute to Dr. Dirk J. Struik last spring, executive director Evelyn Simha said:

"We know him as challenging, sharp, funny, quick, kind, generous, deeply serious-a man of wit and honor, loyalty and steadfast friendship."

"As an historian of mathematics," she continued, "he is particularly important to us here, at this center for advanced research in the history of science and technology, because of his great and influential book, The Concise History of Mathematics, beautifully balanced between technicalities and generalities, translated into uncountable languages, most recently Persian. With this book and his historical scholarship, Struik has become the instructor responsible for half the world's basic knowledge of the history of mathematics."

It is an apt summary of the academic career of Professor Struik, who says jokingly as he nears the "patriarchal" age of 100, "I've become kind of an institution-me and other interesting monuments of antiquity. I was there-the 19th century. I`ve seen the world from both sides."

Professor Struik has come a long way in time and place from his birthplace of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. His father was a grade school teacher who came from "yeoman's stock" in the rural part of the Netherlands.

Professor Struik was educated at the University of Leiden in Holland, where he received his doctorate in 1922. He was an assistant at the Technical University in Delft from 1917 to 1924, and an International Education fellow in Italy and Germany from 1924 to 1926.

He came to MIT in 1926 as a lecturer in mathematics and was appointed an assistant professor in 1928. He was promoted to associate professor in 1931 and professor in 1940. He became an American citizen in 1934. In 1972 he was made an honorary research associate in the History of Science Department at Harvard University.

As is well known, Dr. Struik's interests go beyond mathematics to politics and to the welfare of the working class people, who he believes would be best served through the socialism embodied in the philosophy of Karl Marx. "From my student days on," he said, "I found the study of Marx' way of thinking has been helpful."

In her Dibner Institute tribute, Ms. Simha took account of this, noting that "from the very beginning, personally and professionally, and continuing even now, Professor Struik's great concern for people in oppressed situations has been the backdrop for all his activities-has informed his life and work, in fact, even when it brought him hard times."

"He wanted to link mathematics with the socio-economic background against which mathematics developed-questioning the weight of social and economic forces in the development even of the `pure math' of the Greeks, for example. He is now interested in ethno-mathematics and remains unshaken in his social and political beliefs."

Indeed he is. Professor Struik keeps a sharp eye on the world through The Boston Globe (as for television, he is "addicted" to public television's "Masterpiece Theater" and "Mystery" series).

He views the dissolution of the Soviet Union as "a big tragedy" that has led to internecine warfare in the former Soviet Union and Yugolslavia.

He adds, "Some kind of stable situation may arise, with some of the old socialism restored, but with much more understanding of human rights. We now know that socialism cannot be built up in a police state."

Taking the longer view, he comments that "political revolutions go from defeat to defeat and get stronger every time."

On the political scene in the United States, he said he "deplores the fact" that President Clinton "is not a partisan of a single-payer health care system." He also regrets that the diminished labor movement "has no one single force working for progressive legislation."

Of his own travails during the McCarthy era, he said strongly, "I fought back." However, he said his anger was directed at the state, "not at MIT," whose actions he found "not appropriate, but understandable."

Dr. Struik had been suspended, with pay, in September 1951, and was reinstated by President James R. Killian Jr. in May 1956, when all charges against him were dropped. In October, acting on the recommendations of a faculty review committee, the Corporation's executive committee upheld the restoration of Dr. Struik's tenure but censured him "for conduct unbecoming" an MIT professor," based largely on his use of the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activites Committee" and "his comparative lack of candor with members of the administration."

Dr. Struik has always maintained that he was not a member of the Communist Party in this country, but acknowledged that he was sympathetic and a supporter.

Professor Struik still drops in at the mathematics department at MIT "to chat with colleagues and go to the library."

He said he has seen MIT "grow from a good, but more or less provincial Institute, to an international institution." He gives much of the credit for this to President Karl Taylor Compton, who served from 1930 to 1949.

He said that Dr. Compton, his good friend, understood that "a technical education, without modern science, was impossible."

Asked what he misses, he said simply, "My wife."

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 4).

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