Home from home – An Irishman’s Diary on Polish logician, mathematician and philosopher Jan Lukasiewicz
Jan Lukasiewicz: Polish logician, mathematician and philosopher was invited to Ireland by Éamon de Valera
The Spirit of Mathematical Logic was the title of a public lecture given by a newly arrived Polish professor to Dublin in November 1946. Jan Lukasiewicz said that it was the first time that he had ever lectured in English and that he had only started to learn the language six months previously.
In the audience was the man who had helped bring him to Ireland, the then-taoiseach Éamon de Valera.
De Valera extended an offer to Lukasiewicz and his wife to come to Ireland in February 1946 and they arrived in Dublin the following month.
The November 1946 talk was the inaugural lecture in a course of public lectures at the Royal Irish Academy, where Lukasiewicz had been appointed to the chair of mathematical logic. He lived in the capital until he died in a Dublin hospital 10 years later.
The president of UCD, who presided at the lecture, said of Lukasiewicz that “the fortunes of war and peace brought him to these shores”. The two world wars certainly had a huge impact on his life.
When he was awarded his doctorate in 1902, he also received a diamond ring from Emperor Franz Josef to mark his stunning academic achievements
Lukasiewicz was born on December 21st, 1878, in the capital of the province of Galicia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a captain in the Austrian army, but the family spoke Polish at home. At the time, the city was known as Lwów in Polish and Lemberg in German. Today it is called Lviv and is in Ukraine.
Lukasiewicz was a brilliant student who excelled at school and university, where he studied mathematics and philosophy.
When he was awarded his doctorate in 1902, he also received a diamond ring from Emperor Franz Josef to mark his stunning academic achievements, having attained only the highest possible scores throughout his studies.
He won scholarships to study in Berlin and Louvain and then returned to work at the University of Lwów.
From 1915 until 1939, he lectured in mathematical logic at the universities of Krakow and Warsaw.
Lukasiewicz was a founding member of the Lwów-Warsaw School, which developed theories of many-valued logic, compared with Aristotle who used two values.
The school has been described as “the most important movement in the history of Polish philosophy”.
The interwar years were the most productive years of Lukasiewicz’s academic career. He wrote books and academic papers where he developed his ideas.
His major contribution to the field was inverse, bracketless or Polish notation, which was used for many years in programming languages for computers. This is where brackets and other unnecessary symbols are removed from equations.
When Poland achieved independence, Lukasiewicz was appointed minister of education in the Paderewski cabinet in January 1919. He served two terms as rector of the University of Warsaw, firstly in 1922/23 and again in 1931/32. When Poland was occupied in 1939, Lukasiewicz’s circumstances changed drastically. His home and library were destroyed by the Luftwaffe bombing of Warsaw in September 1939. The university was closed by the occupying force and so he was out of a job.
De Valera was keen to bring Polish academics to Ireland after the war to boost Ireland’s relatively small indigenous scientific community
Lukasiewicz spent his time teaching in the underground university. He also found some paid work in the city archives and the city library. In the summer of 1944, before the Soviet army reached Warsaw, Lukasiewicz and his wife left the country and took refuge in Münster in Germany. They were helped in their escape by some kind German colleagues with whom he had worked for many years.
The couple eventually made their way to a camp for displaced persons in Belgium. It was in this camp that they received de Valera’s invitation to come to Ireland. Apparently, a Polish-speaking Irishman in the uniform of a Polish officer delivered the message to Lukasiewicz, who later said that he “accepted this proposal with joy and gratitude”.
De Valera was keen to bring Polish academics to Ireland after the war to boost Ireland’s relatively small indigenous scientific community. Invitations were sent to several respected Polish scientists and it seems that Lukasiewicz was the only one who accepted the offer. Initially, he gave public lectures at the Royal Irish Academy twice a week. In 1949, he lectured on Aristotelian logic at UCD and the following year he lectured on mathematical logic and the history of ancient logic at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Sadly, ill-health put an end to his research and lecturing in 1953. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 1955.
Jan and Regina Lukasiewicz lived in a house on Fitzwilliam Square. A small round Dublin Tourism plaque outside alerts passers-by to this fact.
He died on February 13th, 1956, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin. The inscription on his gravestone reads “far from dear Lwów and Poland”.
The man who helped to bring him to Ireland, Éamon de Valera, was among the mourners at the funeral.