Otto Yulyevich Schmidt


Born: 30 September 1891 in Mogilev, Russian Empire, now Belarus
Died: 7 September 1956 in Zvenigorod, near Moscow, Russia


Otto Yulyevich Schmidt's name is often transliterated as Shmidt. Of course, Schmidt sounds like a German name and this is precisely where Otto Schmidt's ancestors on his father's side came from. They had moved to Courland, a region on the Baltic coast which had become part of the Russian Empire at the very end of the 18th century. The region became part of Latvia in 1918. Otto's father, Julius Fridrihovich Schmidt, tried to make a living trading goods. Otto's mother, Anna Fridrihovna Ergli, was from a farming family in Courland; in fact she met Julius since she was a near neighbour. One might wonder, given this background, what language was spoken in the home. Amazingly three languages were spoken, Russian, Latvian and German. It was a large family with Otto being one of five children.

The family moved around as Otto was growing up, trying to improve their fortunes and find a better life, but Otto was given a good educations at schools in Mogilev, Odessa and Kiev. The fact that the boy "showed uncommon curiosity and a desire for knowledge" had encouraged his family to give him a good academic education rather than have him learn a trade. Given the poor financial position of the family, this entailed a considerable sacrifice. It was in 1900 that he began his education in Mogilev, going straight into the second grade of the Gymnasium, but the family soon moved to Odessa where he continued his schooling at the Gymnasium in 1901. His passion for learning is illustrated by the fact that he approached the headmaster of the school in Odessa wanting to learn ancient Greek (he was already fluent in Latin). Although nobody else in the school was interested in studying Greek, the headmaster found a teacher to teach Schmidt in a class of one. Another move saw the family go to Kiev in 1907 and Schmidt, as he had done throughout his school years, continued with self-study outside the classroom, in particular reading classic books, studying foreign languages, and higher mathematics. He graduated from Classical Gymnasium No 2 in Kiev in 1909 with the Gold Medal and, in the same year, entered the Physics and Mathematics Faculty of Kiev University.

At university, Schmidt continued to work long hours as he had during his school years, often spending the whole night studying. He was taught by some outstanding mathematicians such as D A Grave, B Ya Bukreev, G Y Pfeiffer, G K Suslov and V P Voronets. His progress was outstanding and, in his second year of study, Dmitry Aleksandrovich Grave began to encourage him to undertake research. Grave had founded the Kiev school of algebra and, at the time Schmidt studied there, Kiev was the leading centre for algebra. Schmidt's progress was so marked that, while still an undergraduate, he published three excellent papers on group theory in 1912-13 including Über die Zerlegung endlicher Gruppen in direkte unzerlegbare Faktoren (1912) and Sur les produits directs (1913). The first of these papers earned him a gold medal. They contain what today is called the Krull-Schmidt theorem (or sometimes the Remak-Krull-Schmidt theorem). This is around fourteen years before Krull's version of the theorem but Schmidt's version was published in January 1912, only months after Remak's version which is contained in his 1911 doctoral thesis. The 1913 paper whose title is given above contains a new shorter proof.

He married Vera Yanitskaia and graduated from Kiev University in 1913. Following Grave's recommendation, he continued to study at Kiev for his Master's degree which he was awarded in 1916. In the same year, he published the monograph The abstract theory of groups which was the first group theory book to include results on both finite and infinite groups. There are many original results in the book, particularly in the area of what Schmidt called special groups (special groups are groups G such that every proper subgroup H of G has a normaliser different from H). For this remarkable publication, Schmidt was awarded the Rakhmaninov Gold Medal. A second edition of the book was published in Russian in 1933 and an English translation of this second edition was published in 1966. Following the award of his Master's degree, he was appointed as a privatdocent at the University of Kiev and began his teaching career. The events of the Russian revolution of 1917, however, completely changed the direction of his career.

The events of World War I had already had severe consequences for Ukraine and Kiev in particular. Russia had won victories against Austro-Hungary in late 1914 but in the spring of 1915 Austro-Hungary had recaptured parts of Ukraine leading to an evacuation of Kiev University to Saratov. Schmidt had, like other members of the university, lived in Saratov during 1915-16 and it was only after the university returned to Kiev that he began his career as a university teacher. However, even at this early stage in his career he was undertaking leading administrative roles both in education and in running the city. He had been elected to chair the Society for Higher Education Teachers of Kiev and by early 1917 was also helping organise food distribution for the city of Kiev. In June 1917 he went to Petrograd (as St Petersburg was called at that time) to attend the All-Russian Congress on Higher Education. There had already been riots in Petrograd in March 1917 because of severe food shortages and, as a result, the Tsar was forced to abdicate and a Provisional Government set up. On 14 July Schmidt was appointed as a clerk in the Ministry of Food but remained on the staff of Kiev University.

In October 1917 the Bolsheviks staged a coup. The Ministry of Food was disbanded and the People's Commissariat for Food was set up. Schmidt was appointed as head of one of the divisions. In March of the following year operations were moved from Petrograd to Moscow and Schmidt relocated to Moscow where his first son Vladimir Ottovich was born in March 1920. In the early 1920s, he took on further roles such as in the People's Commissariat for Education. He produced several reports on the restructuring of education, including: The importance of vocational education; Problems of professional education; On higher education; and The reform of the school system. His article Mathematical laws of currency issue (1923) addressed the question of the money supply, an important problem for the Soviet government at the time. However, in addition to these roles, Schmidt began to teach in secondary schools in 1920 and, in the same year, he was appointed as a lecturer at the Forestry Institute. In 1923 he became a Professor of Mathematics at Moscow State University where he became Head of the Department of Algebra and set up an active school of group theory.

In 1921 Schmidt was appointed as director of the State Publishing House and under his leadership publishing of scientific journals and research monographs restarted. It was in this capacity that he planned to undertake a huge task of producing a major Russian reference work. In April 1924 he was appointed as editor-in-chief of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. This was a very large undertaking and, as well as enlisting numerous scientists and experts in the arts to write articles, Schmidt himself authored many articles over a period of many years.

As a child Schmidt had suffered from tuberculosis and, although he had made a good recovery, the illness recurred periodically. In 1924 he went to the Austrian Tyrol where he received treatment part of which involved climbing mountains. This experience led him to became a keen mountaineer and, in 1928, he headed a joint Soviet-German expedition which explored the glaciers of the Pamirs, the highland region of Central Asia. The expedition explored the region of the Fedchenko Glacier, making possible the first accurate topographical maps of the north-western Pamirs. Despite his numerous tasks and his health problems he was still able to produce mathematical papers of considerable importance. In 1924 he published Groups all of whose proper subgroups are special. We have already noted that Schmidt used the term 'special group' and given a definition above. In this paper he classified finite non-nilpotent groups all of whose proper subgroups are nilpotent. In the summer of 1927 he went to Germany on a research visit and delivered an important paper on infinite groups with chain conditions to the Göttingen Mathematical Society. This was published in Mathematische Zeitschrift as Über unendliche Gruppen mit endlicher Kette (1929).

It is rather remarkable that we still have not reached the events of Schmidt's life for which he is best known today, namely his work as a scientist and explorer of the Russian and Siberian Arctic. In 1928 he was put in charge of the icebreaker Sedov on a scientific expedition to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of 191 islands in the northeastern Barents Sea. Many of the islands had been discovered by an Austro-Hungarian expedition in 1873 (and named after the Austrian emperor) but annexed by the Soviet Union in 1926. Clearly the Soviet Union was keen to establish a permanent presence in their newly annexed land but there was a reason why Schmidt was a good choice as far as the Soviet leadership was concerned. He had shown himself a strong supporter of the Russian revolution of 1917 and had joined the Bolsheviks in the following year. However, he was unhappy with the direction that Stalin took the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin in 1924. In 1928 Stalin brought in economic policies which fitted his political philosophy but caused widespread famine. In many ways it is remarkable that Schmidt, who opposed Stalin's approach, survived at all - most of Stalin's opponents were eliminated. Perhaps Stalin did not expect him to return from Franz Josef Land, but anyway he was out of the way as far as the leadership was concerned.

The 1928 expedition established the Polar Geophysical Observatory in Franz Josef Land and returned safely. Two years later Schmidt headed a second expedition to the same destination, again on the icebreaker Sedov, going beyond Franz Josef Land towards the Severnaya Zemlya. An island they discovered on this expedition was named Ostrov Shmidta, after their leader Schmidt. In 1932 he was appointed as head of the Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route which had been set up to develop the northeastern passage, a sea route along the north coast linking European Russia with Siberia.

In command of an expedition, Schmidt sailed on the ice-breaker Sibiryakov (originally the Newfoundland sealing steamer Bellaventure) setting out from Murmansk in 1932 in an attempt to navigate the northeastern passage from west to east. The Sibiryakov rounded the northern tip of Severnaya Zemlya, called at Tiksi and the mouth of the Kolyma, but lost its propeller in the ice it encountered before reaching the Bering Strait. It continued under sail through the Strait and reached Vladivostok. The following year Schmidt commanded a second expedition on the ice-breaker Chelyuskin intending to make the voyage from west to east and then return along the same route. They sailed on 12 July 1933 with over one hundred people, including women and children, on board. Having almost reached the Bering Strait from the west, it became stuck in ice which eventually crushed the vessel which then sank in the Chukchi Sea. Most of the members of the expedition had managed to abandon the ship and set up a camp on the ice. They constructed a landing strip and were eventually rescued by a number of airplanes. Schmidt became a national hero. Many newspaper articles described his exploits, radio programs featured him as did the newsreels:-

Girls hung portraits of him cut from magazines in their rooms.

In May 1937 Schmidt set off on another expedition, this time by aircraft from one of the Franz Josef Land islands. The airplane landed on the ice within 13 miles of the North Pole where he set up a research station "North Pole 1". Other airplanes flew out further men and supplies after which Schmidt returned to Franz Josef Land and then to Moscow. On 27 June 1937, at Tushino airfield 15 km west of Moscow where his plane landed, he was met by Stalin and members of the Politburo who honoured him with the title Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. He was then further honoured by being taken to a banquet in the Kremlin and later, a special medal "Gold Star" was established to award him a further distinction. However, later in 1937 the ice on which the research station North Pole 1 was set up drifted towards Greenland and, in February 1938, Schmidt mounted a successful rescue mission on an ice-breaker to bring back the scientists. Schmidt had been elected a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences on 1 February 1933 and a full member on 1 June 1935. He urged the Academy to found an Institute of Theoretical Geophysics which happened in 1938. Schmidt became director of the Institute on its foundation, a role he held for the following ten years. On 28 February 1939 he was elected vice-president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, a position he held until 24 March 1942. In this capacity he was responsible for the evacuation and reestablishment of academic institutions forced on the Soviet Union because of the German invasion during World War II. He was, however, removed from his role in the USSR Academy of Sciences by Joseph Stalin and shortly afterwards he was removed from the editorship of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

In 1944 Schmidt proposed his hypotheses of the origin of the solar system. This theory he published in his 1949 book Four lectures on the theory of the origin of the Earth. His theory was that at some point the sun passed through a cloud of dust and gas which was captured by its gravitational attraction. The cloud was rotating and it contracted under gravity becoming more dense. Dust particles coalesced to form larger bodies whose gravitational attraction caused further material to be swept up forming larger bodies. One of the main differences of this theory from those which had been proposed earlier was that the planets formed as cold solid bodies rather than in a hot molten state. The warming of the Earth, he suggested, was due to radioactive decay of elements in its core which, as a consequence, released large amounts of gas and water vapour which condensed to form the oceans. He also published papers on astronomical problems such as The theory of capture and statistical laws of the distribution of the orbits of double stars (Russian) (1948) and The problem of capture in the three body problem (Russian) (1948).

We must not give the impression that Schmidt gave up group theory for nothing could be further from the truth. For example, A G Kurosh had been influenced to become a group theorist through reading Schmidt's papers and attending a group theory course he gave at Moscow State University in 1930. Examples of group theory papers that Schmidt wrote towards the end of his career include: Über die Frobenius-Gruppen (1940), Groups with two classes of non-invariant subgroups (Russian) (1940), On infinite special groups (Russian) (1940), and Infinite soluble groups (Russian) (1945). While mentioning his work in group theory, we should mention the "Schmidt problem" - see for example [8]. This asks which infinite groups have no infinite proper subgroups. Szélpál showed in 1949 that Prüfer's quasi-cyclic groups are the only abelian groups with this property. Many other results were obtained over the following years showing that the quasi-cyclic groups are the only examples when weaker conditions than abelian are imposed. Kostrikin [20] discusses subsequent work including the examples by A Yu Ol'shanskii published in 1982:-

For every sufficiently large prime p there exists an infinite group G such that every proper subgroup of G has order p.

By the time that Schmidt proposed his theory of the origin of the solar system his health had begun to seriously deteriorate. The tuberculosis which had periodically affected him from childhood had spread to his throat as well as his lungs. He found speaking increasingly difficult and spent much time in a sanatorium near Moscow, and one in Yalta. At times the condition eased and he was able to lecture in Moscow and Leningrad. He continued to work, even when confined to bed, and in 1951 he founded the Geophysical Department at Moscow State University and was appointed its head. In 1953 he was still able to lecture at the opening of a new building at Moscow State University but he had to spend increasing amounts of time in bed in Zvenigorod, near Moscow. During the last three months of his life he knew that he had little time left. He said:-

I am thankful for the life I was given. There were many good and many interesting things! I'm not afraid to die.

We have mentioned above many of the honours awarded to Schmidt. He was awarded three Orders of Lenin, two Orders of Red Banner, an Order of Red Star and several medals. However, we should indicate just how great his hero status became by listing further ways in which his memory has been preserved. Various geographical features have been named after him: an Island in the Kara Sea, the peninsula in the northern part of Novaya Zemlya, a cape on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, one of the peaks and a pass in the Pamir Mountains. Also named for him is the Institute of Earth Physics of the USSR, the Museum of Arctic Exploration, and a Gymnasium. There are streets in Archangel, Kiev, and Lipetsk named for him as well as an urban avenue in Mogilev. The first Soviet scientific icebreaker was launched in 1979 and named Otto Schmidt. In 1995 the Schmidt Medal was established for outstanding scientific work in research and development of the Arctic. A minor planet (No 2108) has been named after him, as has a crater on the moon.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

July 2011


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Schmidt_Otto.html]