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A brief history of the Belgian Mathematical Society, in two and a half chapters

by Luc Lemaire
An updated version of this text is available in PDF

Note: We thank the European Mathematical Society for allowing us to reproduce this Brief History, first published in their Newsletter #29 (September 1998).

Chapter 1 : The early days (1921--1946)

As I write, I have in front of me two thick notebooks, handwritten between 1921 and 1946 as minutes of the meetings of the Belgian Mathematical Society. (*)
These provide an interesting and nostalgic view of the birth of the Society and of the context of mathematical research at the time.
The first page is dated 14.3.1921, and presents the decision to create a ``Mathematical Circle where all questions concerning pure and applied mathematics would be considered, by lectures, communications and discussion'' (all the quotes here are loose translations of the original French text).
Nine people were present, the best known being Th. De Donder, L. Godeaux and A. Errera.
The next meeting gathered 22 members for adoption of temporary rules and two lectures, by A. Errera and Th. De Donder. The official statutes were adopted in November and the name ``Circle'' was replaced by ``Society''in January 1922. In these early days also Henri Bosmans was involved. Paul Van Praag (president of the BMS 1986--88) has written a note on this. It is in French and can be found here.
Here are some excerpts of the statutes.

Article 2: ``The aim of the Society is to contribute to progress and diffusion of mathematics in Belgium. It is concerned with mathematics, pure and applied, in the broadest sense. It will try to establish a permanent link between secondary school and university''.

Presumably, these aims could be expressed today in the same way, and the relations between pure and applied mathematics, or between the different levels of teaching remain present day questions.

Article 3 states that there will be a meeting every month (except August and September), and article 7 that the membership fee is 10 francs (one quarter of an ecu) for members living in Brussels, but 5 francs (one eight of a euro) for the others !
These articles survived changes in the statutes in 1923 and 1936. To my knowledge, they were not officially modified before ... 1998. The fact is that nobody bothered about the statutes (or knew about them) --- even when the monthly meetings vanished for lack of participants in the seventies,or when the membership fee rose to the (still cheap) amount of 600 francs (the same for everyone !).
The last article specifies that in case of termination of the society, ``the assets are given to the poor''.
Note that the sentence ``l'avoir est remis aux pauvres'', means to all the poor --- no definition or algorithm being given to identify them.
At the time, the Society didn't start a journal, but its records appear in brief supplements of a journal of the period : Mathesis.

The handwritten minutes describe for every meeting the topic of the lecture and summarize the discussion. Most of the lectures were given by Belgian mathematicians, and it is interesting that they felt the need for these monthly contacts, and maintained them for many years.
Some foreign speakers were of course also invited.
Quite regularly, lectures were supplemented by reports on results announced in international congresses, where one (but maybe only one) member was able to go.
Two aspects are striking.
Those monthly meetings were maintained throughout a long period (except during World War 2), and this must reflect a time when information did not flow easily and when meetings were fairly rare.
The subjects treated were extremely varied - and in fact established links between pure and applied mathematics, and between university and secondary school, in a way forgotten today.
Indeed, we find lectures on mathematical physics (with e.g. De Donder), astrophysics (Lemaître), algebraic geometry (Godeaux), analysis (De la Vallée - Poussin, Lepage), engineering (van den Dungen), mathematics of insurance, and secondary school mathematics (with A. Mineur --- sharply remembered by generations of Belgian schoolchildren for his treatise on descriptive geometry).
Amongst foreign speakers, let me just pick two curios.
On top of various lectures on integration, Lebesgue gave a talk in 1925 on ruler and compass constructions.
In 1922, Millikan gave a lecture, comparing his ideas on the electron with those of Planck and De Donder. The minutes specify that he was asked a question by Henriot on the capacity of the electron to spin --- and that he didn't know the answer.
The notebooks end in June 1946. I don't know if further books were lost or if records were interrupted. This is possible because the Society started the publication of its Bulletin the following year.

Chapter 2 : The Guy Hirsch period

The first volume of the ``Bulletin de la Société Mathématique de Belgique'' --- a single issue of 46 pages --- appeared in 1947-48, but is not called number 1, maybe because it was unclear whether others would follow. In fact, the numbering starts only with volume 6 in 1953.
Again in 1947, Guy Hirsch was elected deputy secretary, the first step of his lifelong involvement with the Society.
Hirsch, a top class topologist (think of the Leray-Hirsch theorem) and philosopher of science, became so active in the Society that for many years one could say he was the Society.
Indeed, from 1953 to 1993, the official address of the Society was that of his apartment, from which he handled all the administration with the help of his wife and son, acting both as secretary and treasurer.
The Bulletin had a small editorial board from 1951 to 1955, but it dissolved that year, leaving Guy Hirsch with the full control of the edition of the Bulletin --- a situation that lasted until 1977 ! After that, the Bulletin was split in two series, Hirsch keeping full editorial control of the first one until his death in 1993.
Singlehandedly, he managed to develop the Society, thanks to his huge mathematical culture and his patient work.
A curio for this period is a paper of Lucien Godeaux: Les recherches mathématiques en Belgique dans ces dernières années,(1949-50) pp. 32-40, in which he lists what he sees as the best work of the time in Belgium.
I imagine that if such a paper were contemplated today, a committee would sit for two years arguing about choices and get nothing written.

In the seventies, the situation began to change. The monthly meetings vanished for lack of participants --- they simply did not fit the needs of the mathematicians anymore.
The mathematical community wanted to take more part in the Society, hence the second series of the Bulletin, started by A. Warrinnier and continued by Y. Felix and J.-P. Tignol, with a strict system of editorial board.
P. Henrard then J. Leroy, and S. Caenepeel as treasurer, took the task of transforming the very personal secretarial system of G. Hirsch (all the exchange programme of the Bulletin for 30 years used only 2 pages, filled with color dots) into a well regulated computerized system.
In the eighties, an annual meeting was launched, and met with great success at the beginning. But again, after a few years, attendance diminished. In the hectic schedule of university people between teaching, research and administration, between numerous specialized meetings, large international conferences, such nonspecialized national meetings obviously had no priority, and the Society went looking for another formula.

Chapter 3 : The present period (up to now)

Since 1994, the Society has a new series of its Bulletin, coming from the merger of the two series and of another journal, Simon Stevin (globalization is everywhere in Europe). It works according to a strict refereeing process, and papers on all mathematical subjects can be sent to the main editor, Hendrik Van Maldeghem <bull.bms@cage.rug.ac.be>.
The Bulletin publishes 5 issues per year, and on average one supplement.
In collaboration with the National Committee for Mathematics, the Society also runs a Newsletter for its members, and its electronic version on the Society's web site is updated in real time.
A rebirth of the congresses came with the start of a series of joint meetings. The first one with the American, Dutch and Luxemburg mathematical societies brought 500 mathematicians in Antwerp in 1996 (an all time record for Belgium).
One, with the London Mathematical Society took place in Brussels on May 14-16, 1999. In 2001, Liège hosted a joint meeting with the Deutsche Mathematiker Vereinigung (DMV).

If there is some lesson to draw from this brief overview, it is probably that when situations change, mathematical societies must adapt. In that sense the B.M.S. today plays its role as it did in 1921 --- but this role has changed. A modern structure remains modern only for a period.
A Society's function is largely about communication, and nothing changes faster today than communication. Certainly, chapter 4 of this story will concern every mathematical publisher, and will be about the impact and good use of the possibilities of electronic publishing. An evolution will take place, but I doubt if anybody could describe with certainty the situation that we shall know in 20 years.

Anyway, we are still in the middle of this chapter 3

(*) These notebooks are kept in the Fond Hirsch, a section of the Bibliothèque de l'Institut de Statistique et Recherche Opérationnelle de l'U. L. B. (Campus Plaine, bâtiment NO, 9e étage, tel. 32 (0)2 650.58.98). Because they are unique manuscripts, they can't be removed from the library, where a Xerox machine is available.

Maintained by Philippe Cara, last modified: May 16, 2011 11:10:29.