Paul Wolfskehl

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Paul Friedrich Wolfskehl (30 June 1856 in Darmstadt - 13 September 1906 in Darmstadt), was a physician and mathematician. He bequeathed 100,000 marks (equivalent to 1,000,000 pounds in 1997 money) to the first person to prove Fermat's Last Theorem.

Paul Friedrich Wolfskehl was born on June 30, 1856, in Darmstadt as the younger of two sons to the wealthy Jewish banker Joseph Carl Theodor Wolfskehl (1814–1863). Paul’s mother, Johanna Wolfskehl, was the daughter of the Stuttgart court banker Nathan Wolf Kaulla. His elder brother, the jurist Wilhelm Otto Wolfskehl (1841–1907), took over the bank in 1865 following the death of their father and ran it as an independent company until 1881. Paul Wolfskehl, on the other hand, studied medicine in Leipzig, Tübingen, and Heidelberg from 1875 to 1880, where he gained his doctorate in medicine, probably in 1880. The theme of his dissertation is unknown, yet a paper by Dr. P. Wolfskehl dealing with the characteristics of horizontal slit-shaped pupils in calves and the corresponding vertical pupils in cats, from the laboratory of the Heidelberg eye clinic, appeared in the Journal of Comparative Ophthalmology in 1882. This could be an excerpt of his thesis. It is probable that at this time the symptoms of multiple sclerosis first showed themselves in him. As a physician it soon became clear to him that he would not be able to practice as a doctor in the long term. He then decided, one may presume, due to this handicap, to study mathematics. Initially he studied in Bonn in 1880 and then switched in 1881 to Berlin. It was there until 1883 that he attended lectures given by, amongst others, the then seventy-one-year-old Ernst Eduard Kummer (1810–1893). Kurt-R. Biermann reports that Kummer did not cease giving lectures until the winter term 1883–1884 at the age of seventy-three. Under the influence of Kummer, Paul Wolfskehl turned to number theory, in particular algebraic number theory. It is obvious that he learned about the Fermat conjecture in this time. It is also a fact that he studied in depth Kummer’s relevant papers. On whether Wolfskehl himself attempted to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem one can only speculate, but it is natural to think that this was the case. In 1886 he published a paper („Beweis, dass der zweite Factor der Klassenzahl für die aus den elften und dreizehnten Einheitswurzeln gebildeten Zahlen gleich Eins ist“) in the „Journal für die Reine und Angewandte Mathematik“ which is near to Kummer’s research. Later, from 1887 to 1890, the Faculty of Sciences at the Technische Hochschule Darmstadt asked him to give special lectures on number theory. Through his ever-worsening multiple sclerosis Paul Wolfskehl became increasingly and eventually completely paralyzed, so that by 1890 he had to give up his lectures. In the time that followed he did, however, publish a few brief mathematical papers. Since he was in need of constant care, his family persuaded the bachelor to marry. An oldish spinster, the fifty-three year old daughter of the senior tax officer August Frölich, was sought out for him, and he married Susanne Margarethe Marie Frölich on October 12, 1903, in Darmstadt. Fate, however, was not on the side of the long-suffering Paul. His wife, Marie, revealed herself as an evil Xanthippe, who made the last years of his life a living hell. In January 1905 he altered his last will and testament in favor of “whomsoever first succeeds in proving the Great Theorem of Fermat.” For the correct solution of the prize task he laid down the sum of 100,000 marks and decided that the Royal Society of Science in Göttingen should hold in trust this money and serve as judge for the awarding of the prize. Paul Wolfskehl died on September 13, 1906.

There are a number of theories concerning the prize's origin. The most romantic is that he was spurned by a young lady and decided to commit suicide, but was distracted by what he thought was an error in a paper by Ernst Kummer, who had detected a flaw in Augustin Cauchy's attempted proof of Fermat's famous problem. This rekindled his will to live and, in gratitude, he established the prize. This story was traced by Philip Davis and William Chinn in their 1969 book 3.1416 and All That to renowned mathematician Alexander Ostrowski, who supposedly heard it from another, unidentified source. Another, more prosaic story claims that Wolfskehl wanted to leave as little as possible to his shrewish wife. Yet another story, told in "The man who loved only numbers" by Mark Hoffman, tells that Wolfskehl actually missed his supposed suicide time because he was in the library studying the Theorem. Upon realizing that, he concluded that the contemplation of mathematics was more rewarding than a beautiful woman so he decided not to kill himself. He bankrolled the Theorem because it "saved his life".

In any case, on June 27, 1997, the prize was finally won by Andrew Wiles. By then, due in part to the hyperinflation Germany suffered after the end of World War I, the award had dwindled to £30,000.

The play From Abstraction by Robert Thorogood is based on the life of Paul Wolfskehl. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1 November 2006[1] and 29 August 2008.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "From Abstraction". Rod Hall Agency. 2014-04-28. Retrieved 2014-06-12. 
  2. ^ "From Abstraction". BBC. 2008-08-29. Retrieved 2014-06-12. 


  • Ball, W. W. R. and Coxeter, H. S. M. Mathematical Recreations and Essays, 13th ed. New York: Dover, pp. 69-73, 1987.
  • Barner, K. "Paul Wolfskehl and the Wolfskehl Prize." Not. Amer. Math. Soc. 44, 1294-1303, 1997.
  • Hoffman, P., The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth, New York: Hyperion, pp. 193-199, 1998.

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