
MittagLeffler 
The persistent rumor that Nobel did not establish a prize in mathematics
because MittagLeffler had an affair with Nobel’s wife is certainly
incorrect. Nobel never married. But the other version of this rumor,
founded on hostility between Nobel and MittagLeffler, may be correct
though there is no documentation to support it. Certainly there appear
to have been ill feelings between the two men: according to a letter
from J.L.Synge to H.S.Tropp [Tropp], Fields told Synge that this was
the case, and Synge remarks that he later confirmed this himself in
Sweden.
There is no doubt that Nobel and MittagLeffler knew each other. MittagLeffler
was one of the most prominent Swedish scientists at the time. In 1890
Nobel turned down MittagLeffler’s proposal to fund a professorship
for Sonya Kovalevsky at the Stockholms Högskola (later Stockholm University)
where MittagLeffler was a professor and one of its most powerful members.
(Kovalevsky was on the faculty there from 1884 until her death in 1891.)
The Högskola was named as a beneficiary in Nobel’s first will (1883),
but not in his final will (1896). According to [p. 53, Crawford], the
rector of the Högskola, a chemist named Otto Pettersson, and Svante
Arrhenius, a physicist, let it be known “that Nobel’s dislike for MittagLeffler
had brought about what Pettersson called the `Nobel flop’ ” (the term
he used to describe the dropping of the Högskola from Nobel’s will).
There seems little doubt too that MittagLeffler had many detractors
– “MittagLeffler had a great ambition to succeed in the many endeavors
to which he applied his organizational skills. The judgments of many
of his contemporaries about his person were not positive” (p.334, [Lehto]).
One wonders whether the hostility between Nobel and MittagLeffler,
and the friendship between Fields and MittagLeffler, were factors in
Fields’s establishment of his award. Ironically, MittagLeffler (as
well as Arrhenius) was, in the first few years after Nobel’s death in
1896, of “decisive importance … in shaping the decisions and hence the
international standing of the [Nobel] prizes” [p.8, Crawford].
[Crawford] Elisabeth Crawford, The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution,
The Science Prizes, 19011915, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge)
& Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Paris), 1984.
[Lehto] Olli Lehto, Mathematics Without Borders, A History of the International
Mathematical Union, SpringerVerlag (New York), 1998.
[Tropp] Henry S. Tropp, The Origins and History of the Fields Medal,
Historia Mathematica 3 (1976), 167181.