Kenneth attended the Music Education School in Portland, Oregon, before his father was appointed to Berkeley. After the family moved to Berkeley in 1921, Kenneth attended several schools there. These schools were, in the order he attended them, The Williams School, Cragmont School, Garfield Junior High School, and Berkeley High School. He acquired a copy of Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica which he read while at high school and this turned him on to mathematics so he decided that he would major in mathematics at university. It was not only academic studies that he excelled in at high school, however, for he was also athletic and played tennis, achieving a California junior ranking.
May entered the University of California, Berkeley, intending to major in mathematics but also taking a wide range of subjects. He changed from tennis to soccer and played in the university team. He showed himself one of the brightest students at Berkeley gaining top prizes in his first and subsequent years. He took courses on mathematics, science, economics, German and Italian but he majored in mathematics gaining his A.B. in 1936.
Griffith Evans had been appointed as a professor and chairman of the Mathematics Department at Berkeley in 1934 and he was given the task of revitalising and improving the department as well as setting up a programme for graduate studies. Evans had many different mathematical interests including potential theory, functional analysis and integral equations. However he had also written papers on mathematical economics, in particular on monopolies, competition and cooperation, taxation, profit, prices, etc. Evans had spotted May's talents soon after becoming the Head of Department and encouraged him to think about research in applying statistics to problems of national economic planning. This was an area that interested both Evans and May, so May studied for his Master's Degree in session 1936-37 with this in mind, taking courses in mathematics, economics and physics. He was awarded his Master's Degree in 1937.
A change in his political outlook occurred while he was an undergraduate. He became politically active, arguing strongly against racial discrimination. During his undergraduate days he had joined the Communist Party, something which would have a major impact on his relations with his family and on his career. He began his doctoral studies but, having joined the Institute of Current World Affairs on the recommendation of Griffith Evans, he now accepted a fellowship from them. His father, who was a professor of political science at Berkeley, approved of May taking up this fellowship. The Institute of Current World Affairs had a stated policy to:-
... identify areas or issues of the world in need of in depth understanding, and then to select young persons of outstanding character to study and write about those areas or issues.May fitted these criteria well and he was given the task of studying how science and technology was funded and organised in Russia, and what impact science and technology had on the economy and on politics. This would provide an excellent background to the topic that May was intending to research for his doctorate. He prepared for taking up the fellowship by spending the summer of 1937 studying Russian in a seminar at the Institute of Pacific Relations, part of the University of California. He continued his doctoral studies and took the preliminary examination before beginning work on a thesis. This preliminary examination consisted of submitting a report on which he then was examined. His report was entitled 'Galois Theory of Equations' and was a historical essay. This is the first sign that May was becoming interested in the history of mathematics, the topic for which he is best remembered today. Immediately following this examination he started work on the fellowship, visiting various people associated with the Institute of Current World Affairs both in the United States and Canada before sailing to London.
The choice of London as the place to begin his work was a good one since there were strong units in that city involved in Russian studies, in statistics and in economic planning. He had hoped to be able to go to Russia as a student but this was refused by the Russian authorities. He therefore chose to study in London and visit Russia as a tourist. In Russia in October 1937, he bought many books which he had shipped back to England. He spent time with R A Fisher's research group in London and travelled round England observing various aspects of how things were organised. However by the summer of 1938 he felt that his project had no specific aims and he felt that he wanted to undertake work which would lead him to a Ph.D. While in London, he married Ruth McGovney on 25 July 1938. His father had tried to prevent the marriage and had travelled from Berkeley to London in an attempt to prevent it. The marriage also broke his fellowship agreement with the Institute of Current World Affairs. Ruth McGovney was a school teacher in Oakland, California, and the daughter of Dudley McGovney, the professor of law at Berkeley. The relationship was made more difficult since May's father and Ruth's father had disliked each other for years and also Ruth McGovney was six years older than her husband. May resigned his fellowship but, since his new wife was in Europe for a year on academic leave, they decided to continue to remain in Europe for the duration of her leave.
Kenneth and Ruth May spent the winter of 1938-39 in Paris where May continued his studies of statistics and economics at the Sorbonne. At this stage he was setting out the main ideas that would become his doctoral thesis, although it was seven years before he would submit it. In the summer of 1939 they left Paris on a visit to the Soviet Union and May discussed his ideas with academics in Moscow, Kiev and Kharkov. They returned to London and, shortly afterwards, sailed back to the United States. After returning to Berkeley, May was appointed as an assistant at the University teaching courses on financial mathematics, analytic geometry and calculus. His wife continued with her teaching position at Oakland. His role in the Communist Party at Berkeley increased and he began taking a leading position. By the summer of 1940 Europe was engulfed in war with Russia allied to Germany. In September 1940 the United States began conscription. The Communists opposed conscription and held meetings on the Berkeley campus. May's role in the Communist Party led to a bitter dispute with his father. On 11 October he was dismissed from his teaching position at Berkeley on the grounds that his political views were incompatible with those of the faculty. He could have continued his doctoral studies at Berkeley but he chose to take indefinite leave.
For more about May's break with his father and his role in the Communist Party, see THIS LINK.
May now became fully occupied in Communist activities. The events of 1941 had a huge impact on matters. First, in June of that year, Hitler invaded Russia and then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II in December 1941. May tried to enlist but his Communist affiliations made the authorities reluctant to see him serve in the U.S. army. His marriage broke up around this time. He stood as a Communist candidate in the 1942 California state elections. Not surprisingly, he fell a long way short of being elected. Eventually, in November 1942 he was allowed to join the army and, with experience of mountaineering and skiing, he was assigned to the 87th Mountain Infantry. Serving in the army also led to a reconciliation with his father. On 19 May 1944, while home on leave, he married Jacqueline Bromley whom he had met around 1940 while working for the Communist Party.
Sent to Italy with the U.S. Army, May served with great bravery and courage. After hostilities ended he taught mathematics in Florence at the Army University Study Center for several months. He returned to Berkeley and submitted his doctoral thesis On the Mathematical Theory of Employment in the summer of 1946. He received his Ph.D. on 2 August of that year and, shortly after this, he was appointed to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He taught mathematics at Carleton College from 1946 to 1964 and during these years his mathematical interests changed.
From 1946 May published on mathematical economics with papers such as The aggregation problem for a one-industry model (1946),Probabilities of certain election results (1948), Economics and technology: Production functions (1950) and Econometric models of the national economy (1952). However, his interests changed in the 1950 towards mathematical education and, in the 1960s, to the history of mathematics with papers such as The origin of the four-color conjecture (1965) and biographies of Paul Appell, Eric Temple Bell and Émile Borel in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. His most important work on the history of mathematics is his article on Carl Friedrich Gauss for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1972).
See extracts from some of his papers at THIS LINK.
See also reviews of his two undergraduate textbooks Elementary analysis (1952) and Elements of modern mathematics (1959) at THIS LINK.
In 1964 May left Carleton College and spent two years at Berkeley where he was appointed as a visiting scholar and research mathematician. Then in 1966 he moved to Toronto when he was appointed to the University of Toronto in two roles, as a historian of mathematics and as a mathematical educationalist. He remained at Toronto for the rest of his life and, in the year he took up his position in Toronto, he took on the role as editor of the book review section of the American Mathematical Monthly. After four years in this role, he wrote :-
The experience of examining virtually every English mathematical book published during a four year period has been most enjoyable and instructive. A goodly proportion were undistinguished pot boilers. Some were mathematically and pedagogically unsound, the first most common for the numerous remedial level books, the second too often true of advanced texts and treatises. Nevertheless the general impression is of improving quality. There is a healthy trend away from a show of rigor and toward genuine motivation, clear explanation, and closer links with applications. More books at the elementary level reflect genuine meditation about the problems involved, and more advanced books display scholarship as well as mere technical proficiency. It is to be hoped that these healthy tendencies will continue, since the unquestioning acceptance by the public of anything dished out by mathematicians, including publications and graduates, is likely soon to become a thing of the past. Sources of funds, employers, and students are likely to be increasingly insistent in their questions about the social utility of mathematics and mathematicians.We must now describe what most people consider his greatest contribution, namely the founding of the journal Historia Mathematica. In 1968 May attended the International Congress on the History of Science in Paris and discussed with Rene Taton and Adolph Pavlovich Yushkevich the need for a specialist journal on the history of mathematics. The three mathematicians felt that the way forward was to set up a commission to work towards founding such a journal. Indeed at the following International Congress on the History of Science in Moscow in 1971, a commission was set up and May was elected as chairman. Returning to Toronto, in November 1971 May sent of the first of five Newsletters containing his aims for the new journal (see for example ):-
The journal will be an international journal open to all historians, all points of view, and all approaches to the history of mathematics. It will serve as the professional journal of historians of mathematics, facilitating communication among themselves and with mathematicians, historians of science, teachers, and others interested in their work. It will deal with the history of all aspects of mathematics, including biography, education, philosophy, applications, organizations, institutions, methodology, historiography, relations with other sciences, technology, and general history, but not including the history of related fields such as physics.The fifth of these Newsletters appeared in June 1973 with the first issue of Historia Mathematica being published in February 1974. May was the editor and, remarkably, his efforts had produced about 700 subscribers to this first issue from 39 countries. The journal rapidly gained further subscribers over the next few years. May wrote the paper What is good history and who should do it? which appeared in the second volume of Historia Mathematica. In it he gave his personal reasons for studying the history of mathematics :-
When it comes to purpose, I can only state my preferences. I believe that history can and should be socially useful, to historians of science, to policy makers, to students and users of mathematics, to the educated layman, and above all to the mathematicians who are its most reliable consumers and the creators of its raw material. The history of mathematics seems to have arrived at a takeoff point for the serious study of the recent developments, and a successful flight requires a collaboration of historians and creative mathematicians for which this workshop is a good omen.In the same year that Historia Mathematica was founded, May founded the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics. This Society adopted Historia Mathematica as its official journal.
Sadly, however, May's health took a turn for the worse. He had a heart attack in the autumn of 1975 but, despite regaining much of his former fitness, he felt that he had to cut down on his workload and, as a consequence, decided he had to give up being the editor of Historia Mathematica. He wrote in the editorial of the first issue of 1976:
The distinguished predecessors of 'Historia Mathematica' were associated with their founders and died with them. If 'Historia Mathematica' is to avoid this fate, we must prepare and carry through a prompt transfer of editorial responsibility to younger hands.He also gave up the directorship of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Bruce Sinclair writes :-
Ken May was the Director of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology from 1973 to 1975. The normal term of office for directors of institutes is five years, but in the autumn of his second year, Ken suffered a heart attack. He directed things pretty well even from a hospital bed and was back in the office a few months later, but in the following spring he decided it would be better for his recovery to resign the directorship. Once he made up his mind, Ken rarely looked back, but I believe resigning was a difficult thing for him to do. He had a natural and easy talent for leadership, he liked the job, and he had ideas for the Institute.Despite taking these precautions, May died from a heart attack in December 1977. The authors of  write:-
He was a person of great integrity, with tremendous energy and a dedication to the history of mathematics that has served the entire community of historians of science. As the founder and editor of 'Historia Mathematica', he was able to bring historians of mathematics together to make this journal a truly international effort, one which reflects the cooperation and friendship of scholars everywhere.Charles Jones writes in :-
His working life-style seemed to be almost obsessed with eliminating excess baggage of any kind. He was stimulated by the challenge to pare down to the basic, minimum essentials in every activity. His research methods were a model of efficiency, as was his administrative style. His conversations and his actions were always direct and forthright. He inspired great affection and devotion from his students.Donald Coxeter writes :-
I knew Ken for many years and enjoyed talking with him about the world in general and the history of geometry in particular. I often consulted him, and always found him willing to share his great knowledge of mathematical literature. ... dictionary of mathematics to replace the few unsatisfactory ones that already exist. I hope his colleagues will be able and willing to finish this enormous task. He was warm-hearted and conscientious. We will miss him very much.Let us end with May's own reflections on how he lived his life (see ):-
Since early adolescence I have conditioned myself so that feelings of pleasure and social usefulness are in harmony; and I have organized time and effort to maximize them simultaneously. This has meant a rigorous program of intellectual and physical activity; cooperation with many individuals and organizations; and an effort to be rigorously honest in communication.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
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