January 8, 1888–January 27, 1972
BY PETER D.LAX
DURING HIS LONG and adventurous life Courant achieved many things in mathematics: in research and the applications of research, in the exposition of mathematics and the education of students, and in administrative and organizational matters. To understand how he, essentially an outsider both in Germany and the United States, accomplished these things we have to examine his personality as well as his scientific works. But let’s start at the beginning.
Courant was born on January 8, 1888, in the small town of Lublinitz in Upper Silesia, now part of Poland but then of Germany. His father, Siegmund, was an unsuccessful businessman. The family moved to Breslau, and soon the precocious Richard was beginning to support himself by tutoring. In the gymnasium he came under the influence of a charismatic teacher of mathematics, Maschke, who inspired specially selected, talented students with a love of mathematics. Six years after Courant the young Heinz Hopf entered the gymnasium in Breslau and came under the tutelage of Maschke, who trained his special pupils by posing challenging problems. Many years later Hopf recalled that he was able to solve most of them, but was stumped every once in a while. “Courant could solve it,” said Maschke.