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Paul Wolfskehl
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Mathematician
    (June 30, 1856-September 13, 1906)
    Born in Darmstadt, Germany
    Physician/amateur mathematician
    In his will, left 100,000 marks to the Gottingen Academy of Science as a prize for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem
    Award presented to Andrew Wiles (June 27, 1997)
    There are a number of conflicting stories about why he left much of his fortune as a math prize.
    The most romantic (if not necessarily the most plausible) theory is that he planned to commit suicide over a failed love affair. Having gotten his affairs in order a few hours before the midnight deadline at which he planned to shoot himself, he decided to read a math journal to pass the time. As he read a paper by Ernst Kummer disproving two other mathematicians’ attempted proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, he noticed an assumption that Kummer had failed to justify. He spent the night filling in the gap in the proof and by morning was no longer suicidal. He then rewrote his will to show his appreciation for the theorem that had saved his life.
    The least romantic (and, fortunately, far more concise) theory is that he and his wife did not get along, so he wrote a will that deprived her of most of his estate.
    Given that he revised his will to establish the prize in 1905 – two years after his marriage – the anti-romantic second theory seems the more probable one.
    Announcement of the prize resulted in amateur mathematicians flooding the Gottingen Academy with attempted proofs, with over 600 submitted during just the first year of the prize.
    A large part of the prize was lost when the trustees of the Wolfskehl estate invested 80,000 marks in German war bonds that became worthless after World War I.
    He had to give up practicing medicine after developing symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
    He decided to study mathematics, since he could continue working on the subject even in a wheelchair.
    One of his lecturers was Ernst Kummer, which may explain the origin of his interest in Fermat’s Last Theorem.
    By the time Wiles received the Wolfskehl Prize, it had recovered in value to 75,000 Deutsch marks (approximately $50,000), which made for a nice chunk of change (especially compared to the lousy $5,000 he received from the National Academy of Sciences for the same proof).

Credit: C. Fishel


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