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Biographical Memoirs, Volume 84
under the authorship of Abram Burk. Burk was indeed the name he had been born with. How A. Burk became A. Bergson is a tale worth telling, both as a reflection of what American academic and ordinary life was like 70 years ago, and for what it tells about his own straight-arrow character.
Abram’s older brother Gus (Gustav Burk) studied Harvard graduate physics at the same time that Abe was studying economics. (Reliable family legend tells that Gus’s skill in Baltimore poker games won for his junior brother private tutoring in the economics that he would need at Harvard.) Gus Burk particularly felt uncomfortable in having a name that did not correctly identify him as being the son of Russian immigrant Jews. So the two decided legally to change their surname. Abram sought my advice on the tentative substitution of Bergson for Burk. That struck me as an excellent choice: “It makes the point, but does not rub it in.” Still Abram dithered: “You don’t suspect, Paul, that some will think I’m trying to travel on the prestige of the great French philosopher Henri Bergson?” I put that probability down to near zero. The rest is history. And the old Brahmin Boston Transcript wrote a laudatory editorial commending this reverse instance of an opposite common pattern. In the end no significant citation confusion resulted from this early career decision.
Having by 1937 already achieved wide respect as a mathematical economist, serious Abram decided he would add a second string to his bow. Accordingly he learned the Russian language, and made a lengthy research visit to Moscow. Nineteen thirty-seven was the precise year when Stalin was liquidating on a large scale dissidents and innocents as enemies of the revolution. In later reflection Bergson reported how astonishing it had been that none of the many scholars he talked to—most of whom must have known family