Library acquires papers of eminent mathematician

Princeton NJ -- The papers of an eminent Princeton mathematician have arrived on campus for preservation in the University Library.

Correspondence, editorial files, notes and other materials that document the long and distinguished career of Alonzo Church will be housed in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in Firestone Library. The 50 linear feet of materials were delivered by truck on April 25.


Professor Alonzo Church in 1955.


Church, who lived from 1903 to 1995, earned his bachelor's degree in 1924 and his doctoral degree in 1927 from Princeton. He joined the faculty in 1929 and transferred to emeritus status in 1967. During the 1930s, Church made Princeton a leading center of research in mathematical logic.

"It is an appropriate time for the papers to come to the library since June 14th is the 100th anniversary of Church's birth," said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The papers were donated by the Church family through the special efforts of the professor's son, Alonzo Church Jr. of Hudson, Ohio, who is a 1951 Princeton graduate.

Two of the professor's key contributions to mathematical logic are called Church's Theorem and the Church-Turing Thesis. The theorem extended the work of Kurt Gödel, a prominent Austrian mathematician who later became a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and whose papers also are housed in the Princeton library. The thesis resulted from Church's collaboration with his early students, Barkley Rosser, Stephen Kleene and Alan Turing.

In the 1950s and '60s another generation of Church's students, including Michael Rabin, Hartley Rodgers and Dana Scott, extended this research to automata, formal languages and formal semantics, shaping the new field of theoretical computer science. Through this work, one of Church's earliest creations -- the lambda calculus -- gained new life as the basis for functional programming languages and for denotational semantics.

While pursuing his own research, Church played a leading role in establishing symbolic logic as an autonomous mathematical discipline. A founding officer of the Association of Symbolic Logic, he served as editor of the Journal of Symbolic Logic from 1936 to 1979. He worked to define the agenda of the field and to set the standards of work in it.

Church was renowned for his insistence on criticism with civility, encouraging frank evaluation while rejecting invective and sarcasm, according to Michael Mahoney, professor in the Department of History and in the Program in the History of Science. "The record of his editorial activities will thus be a valuable resource for historians of science interested in the intellectual shaping of new scientific disciplines," he said.

Church also left a legacy as a teacher, famous for the care with which he presented his subject and critiqued the work of others. In addition to those already mentioned, his students include leading mathematicians Martin Davis, Raymond Smullyan and John Kemeny, who later served as president of Dartmouth College. Church's textbook, "An Introduction to Mathematical Logic" (Princeton University Press, 1956), remains a standard of the field.

Church received honorary degrees from Princeton, Case Western Reserve University and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences.

The Church family has had a long association with Princeton. Professor Church's uncle, Alonzo Church, a member of the class of 1892, chose Princeton for his nephew and assured that he was properly prepared for his Princeton education by sending him to the Ridgefield School in Connecticut. Other family members also attended Princeton, including: Church's uncles James Robb Church, a member of the class of 1888, who served with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and W.W. "Will" Church, a member of the class of 1897; and Church's grandson, Alonzo Addison, a member of the class of 1987.

When Church's son, Alonzo, attended Princeton in the 1950s, he was one of the few "town students" during this period. Church and his wife, Mary Julia, also had two daughters, Mary Ann Addison and Mildred Dandridge.

After retiring from Princeton in 1967, Church had a second academic career teaching at the University of California-Los Angeles until 1990. His final years were spent completing unfinished papers in an apartment near his son in Hudson, Ohio. He was buried in the family plot in the Princeton Cemetery.

Once they are sorted and cataloged, the Church papers will be available to researchers using Firestone's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. For more information, contact Skemer at 258-3184 or <dcskemer@>.


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