J Ruska on Heinrich Suter

What appears below is a rough English translation of parts of the paper J Ruska, Heinrich Suter, Isis 5 (1923), 408-417. The translation is by Martial Hille (University of St Andrews).


Heinrich Suter
4 Jan 1848 - 17 March 1922

Heinrich Suter died on the 17th of March 1922 in Dornach in Switzerland. He is known to the readers of Isis, as well as to all those who participate in the study of the history of mathematics, as the best connoisseur of Islamic mathematics and astronomy. This modest man worked unremittingly in his field up to his last days and hence the editor, as well as the author, want to pay tribute to him. It is due to the kindness of his widow, Prof Dr Suter-Frauenfelder, that I have knowledge of letters written by his friends and students. These letters bear witness to Suter's amicability, while his scientific papers bear witness to the scientist Suter.

The boy, who became motherless at a very early age, spend his youth in the village of Hedingen in the canton of Zürich. His father owned a homestead and, in addition, worked as a postman. This life meant that the young boy had to work hard early. In particular he had to deliver mail and parcels for hours to the scattered farms, herd the cattle, and, in other ways, help on the farm. His father wanted his only son to take over the homestead; an understandable wish for a Swiss farmer who was proud of his own property. But the mental agility, which his teacher discovered, paved the way for the boy to have a different life. His father was convinced that he must send his son to attend secondary school. For this sacrifice, science has to be grateful to this brave man as long as the name Heinrich Suter is not forgotten.

Remarkably soon this pupil was addicted to mathematics, and even to the history of mathematics. Therefore he already decided while on the "Züricher Industrieschule" to privately learn Latin and Greek; this was necessary since the school offered modern languages only. This was an exceptional sign of clear awareness of the conditions necessary to precede to historical studies.

Besides a stay in Berlin as a student, he also lived in Zurich. In Berlin he attended lectures by Kummer, Weierstrass and Kronecker. In Zurich the Polytechnikum and University gave him double the possibilities. There he could undertake mathematical, astronomical and physical studies and also undertake philosophical and historical studies. He also knew how to enjoy a student's life as he joined the fraternity (society) "Helvetia".

In December 1871 he received his Ph.D. at the University of Zurich. His thesis, History of mathematics form the oldest times until the end of the 16th century was highly successful. In fact Suter might have been motivated by the example of the Zurich astronomer Rudolf Wolf, who prepared his history of astronomy at the same time. In 1875, the second part of the work was ready, covering the time till the end of the 18th century. It was eventually overshadowed by M Cantor's monumental work and so is nearly forgotten nowadays. Nevertheless, it surely was this work of 600 pages that provided the foundation for Suter's later work.

In 1874, Suter began teaching at the Gymnasium in Schaffenhausen. Here he met his wife Hermine Frauenfelder, a sister of the Swiss philanthropist Eduard Frauenfelder. After ten years in Aurau he was relocated to Zurich, where he remained until his retirement in 1918. His life seems to have been so easy. Early in his life he was already the favourite of his teacher. His pupils in Zurich praised him for the kindness of his character, the clear and calm way he gave his lessons, and his excusing of mathematically less talented students. His colleagues praised his moderate ways. Particular praise can be found in the letters of theologians and medics for whom mathematics was not the highlight of their studies. Everyone understands, that he, who was the son of the wonderful Swiss countryside, loved the mountains. With his children, his three daughters, he spent the summer holidays walking through the beloved Bündernerland. But from time to time he went to Italy, so that he could become acquainted with that country and its people, and to enjoy the sun and wine. He was discrete regarding politics, but the war was a burden to him. A free thinker, without any need of negligibility of anything religious, he went his way in a straight forward manner, lived in noble tolerance and with high ideals.

I do not know if his move to Zurich happened with the studies in mind which were to make Suter famous. In any case, he decided to study Arabic, although already being forty years old. For several semesters he studied under the supervision of Steiner, and later under Hausheer, then later on continued his studies assiduously in private. He also learned some Syrian, Persian and Ottoman. Already in 1892 the translation of the catalogue of mathematicians in the Fihrist of Ibn Abi Ja'qub An-Nadim appeared in Cantor's work on the history of mathematics. In 1893 the translation of the catalogue of the Khedevial Library in Cairo appeared. From that time on there appeared minor or major works about the history of Arabian mathematics and astronomy yearly.

Prof Dr Frank edited the literary works of Suter which remained after his death. In total, the catalogue of papers that Prof Dr Frank published in the Erlangen's Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Medizin (volume 4) names thirty-seven publications in the Bibliotheca Mathematica, seven in the Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik, four in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morg. Gesellschaft, and three in the Sizungsberatungen der Erlanger Physkalisch-medizinischen Sozietät. Furthermore, there are ten papers in other periodicals. It is not my task to honour all papers, but I cannot resist quoting some words from the preface of the Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber und ihre Werke published in Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Mathematischen Wissenschaften (1900), Volume 10. These words describe the aim of H Suter's work and his modesty so well. He says there:-

For the study of the history of each discipline, the knowledge of the life and work of the scientists, who worked in it, creates the necessary foundation. (Necessary for a fruitful study of the historic development of that discipline.) Without it, fruitful study of the historic development of that discipline would be impossible.

After he pointed out that despite all his preparatory work much remains unclear and needs further investigations. He proceeds:-

Now, I tried to fill this gap with this biographic and bibliographic work as much as I can, (and more it is not intended to be). Shall this call the attention of the academics to the Arabian papers hidden in the libraries. Shall it invite those who are familiar with Arabian language to study and to publicise these. But I also would like to ask those, who appreciate the effort of such a work, to be kind to me, if they find a mistake or defect in my work.

He further points out that his book has not been made redundant by C Brockelmann's Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, since that work is fragmentary in the chapters about mathematics and astronomy:-

I believe that for an essay on the history of literature in any field of knowledge it is necessary to have proper acquirements of that field of knowledge and of the corresponding language. But where is the scholar who can say nowadays that he knows all disciplines and their history reasonably, including the humanistic ones as well as the realistic ones?

The great work of Suter on the astronomic tables of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, commissioned by the Danish Academy of Sciences is already discussed in Isis 4, 502. His latest work has been published in the 4th book of the Erlangen Journal (see above). For this, we need to thank in particular the assistance of privy councillor E Wiedemann. It is as if he knew of his coming death, when Suter writes at the end of his short curriculum vitae:-

It is a particular satisfaction for me that my fully or nearly finished works will be published... If it would also be possible to arrange that those from me and others which are collected as appendices to "Mathematikern und Astronomen" would be published, then I would regard that as a considerable extension of my historical studies.

The old Suter was deeply moved (to tears), that he got an honorary doctorate from his home university, particularly, since he did not expect it. But he said in a sad mood:-

So I need to die now, that was the last.

And really - writes his wife - two month later he died in his sleep:

... in the middle of his beloved books, which were his best friends.


JOC/EFR April 2007

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