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Israel Gelfand - biography

Israel Moiseevich Gelfand, also written Israïl Moyseyovich Gel'fand (Yiddish: ישראל געלפֿאַנד, Russian: Изра́иль Моисе́евич Ге́льфанд, (2 September [O.S. 20 August] 1913—5 October 2009)) was a Soviet mathematician who made major contributions to many branches of mathematics, including group theory, representation theory and functional analysis. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Order of Lenin and the Wolf Prize, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a lifelong academic, serving decades as a professor at Moscow State University and, after immigrating to the United States shortly before his 76th birthday, at the Busch Campus of New Jersey's Rutgers University.

He is known for having educated and inspired generations of students through his influential seminar at Moscow State University. His legacy continues in the mathematicians who were his students, such as Endre Szemerédi, Alexandre Kirillov, Joseph Bernstein as well as his own son, Sergei Gelfand.


Early years

A native of Kherson gubernia of the Russian Empire, Gelfand was born into a Jewish family in the small town of Okny (subsequently, Krasni Okny). According to his own account, Gelfand was expelled from high school because his father had been a mill owner. Bypassing both high school and college, he proceeded to postgraduate study at Moscow State University, where his advisor was the preeminent mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov. He nevertheless managed to attend lectures at the University and began postgraduate study at the age of 19.


Israel Gelfand is known for many developments including:

  • the Gelfand representation in Banach algebra theory;
  • the Gelfand–Mazur theorem in Banach algebra theory;
  • the Gelfand–Naimark theorem;
  • the Gelfand–Naimark–Segal construction;
  • Gelfand–Shilov spaces
  • the Gelfand–Pettis integral;
  • the representation theory of the complex classical Lie groups;
  • contributions to the theory of Verma modules in the representation theory of semisimple Lie algebras (with I.N. Bernstein and S.I. Gelfand);
  • contributions to distribution theory and measures on infinite-dimensional spaces;
  • the first observation of the connection of automorphic forms with representations (with Sergei Fomin);
  • conjectures about the index theorem;
  • Ordinary differential equations (Gelfand–Levitan theory);
  • work on calculus of variations and soliton theory (Gelfand–Dikii equations);
  • contributions to the philosophy of cusp forms;
  • Gelfand–Fuks cohomology of foliations;
  • Gelfand–Kirillov dimension;
  • integral geometry;
  • combinatorial definition of the Pontryagin class;
  • Coxeter functors;
  • generalised hypergeometric series;
  • Gelfand - Tsetlin patterns;
  • and many other results, particularly in the representation theory for the classical groups.

Influence outside of mathematics

The Gelfand–Tsetlin basis (also in the common spelling Zetlin) is a widely-used tool in theoretical physics and the result of Gelfand's work on the representation theory of the unitary group and Lie groups in general.

Gelfand also published works on biology and medicine. For a long time he took an interest in cell biology.

He worked extensively in mathematics education, particularly with correspondence education. In 1994, he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship for this work.


Gelfand was married to Zorya Shapiro, and their two sons, Sergei and Vladimir both live in the United States. A third son, Aleksandr, died of leukemia. Following a divorce, Gelfand and his second wife, Tatiana, became the parents of a daughter, Tatiana. The family, all in the U.S., also includes four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The memories about I.Gelfand are collected at the special site handled by his family.

Honors and awards

Gelfand held several honorary degrees and was awarded the Order of Lenin three times for his research. In 1977 he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. He won the Wolf Prize in 1978, Kyoto Prize in 1989 and MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1994. He held the presidency of the Moscow Mathematical Society between 1968 and 1970, and was elected a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Irish Academy, the American Mathematical Society and the London Mathematical Society.

In an October 2003 article in The New York Times, written on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Gelfand is described as a scholar who is considered "among the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century", having exerted a tremendous influence on the field both through his own works and those of his students.


Israel Gelfand died at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital near his home in Highland Park, New Jersey. He was less than five weeks past his 96th birthday. His death was first reported on the blog of his former collaborator Andrei Zelevinsky and confirmed a few hours later by an obituary in the Russian online newspaper Polit.ru.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Israel Gelfand

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