Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz
Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz (1868-1931) was an extraordinary economist, statistician and mathematician. He lived and worked in Berlin more than 30 years. He taught at the Berlin University (Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität) - as well as at the business school (Handels-hochschule), which was established in 1906. In 1901 he became professor (außerordentlicher Professor) for economics (Staatswissenschaft) and statistics at the Berlin University and was one of the directors of the Statistical Seminar, only in 1920 he got a full professorship "ad personam" (persönliches Ordinariat). In 1906 he also became a professor for mathematics and statistics at the business school. Until his death he lived in Berlin-Halensee, Johann-Sigismundstr. 2, together with his sister Helene von Bortkiewicz (ca. 1867-1939).
Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz was born on August 7 in 1868 in St. Petersburg in Imperial Russia to a Polish family. He got an excellent education and studied first jurisprudence and law in St. Petersburg. Later he studied at the Göttingen University, and from 1895 until 1897 he studied at the - then Prussian - University in Strassburg and became Privatdozent. He was interested in statistics thanks to his advisors Wilhelm Lexis (for the PhD) in Göttingen and Georg Friedrich Knapp (for the Habilitation) in Strassburg. In 1898 he published his first book "The Law of Small Numbers" (Das Gesetz der kleinen Zahlen) in which he dealt with the Poisson distribution. Thanks to this publication his name became widely known. After a short intermezzo in St. Petersburg where he taught at the Alexandrovsky Lyceum (1899-1901) he remained in Berlin for 30 years until his death.
The work of Bortkiewicz covered classical economics, population statistics and theory, mathematical statistics and theory of probability, mathematical economics and physical statistics. The fields were very different, but they were analogously related to the methods he used. He contributed to the development of all these fields and, especially published what would become classic works in mathematical statistics. Bortkiewicz published many articles but no complete volumes of his mumerous investigations. Unfortunately, no "collected papers" were ever published.
He died on July 15 in 1931 in Berlin after a long illness. In 1934 Nazi students destroyed his portrait in one of the class rooms of the business school, as the pedell (porter or careteaker) reported. He was very high acknowledged by the economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) and the mathematician Emil Julius Gumbel (1891-1966), both had to go into exile because of the Nazi regime, and both published about Bortkiewicz in exile.
With the establishement of the "Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz chair" he comes back to the Berlin University and, to the memory of an extraordinary scientist who was strict, disciplined and hard on his critics but generous to his colleagues.
Text by: A. Vogt, MPI History of Science, Berlin
Picture by: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin