Kenneth O. May

Kenneth O. May (July 8, 1915, in Portland, Oregon – December 1977, in Toronto) was an American mathematician and historian of mathematics, who developed May's theorem.

May was a prime mover behind the International Commission on the History of Mathematics, and was the first editor of its official journal Historia Mathematica. Every four years the ICHM awards the Kenneth O. May Prize for outstanding contributions to the history of mathematics.

Kenneth was the son of Samuel Chester May (1887 to 1955) and Eleanor Ownsworth Perkin. His father had studied at University of Oregon and gone on to Yale Law School before practicing law in Portland, Oregon beginning in 1913. Ken was born in 1915 there, but World War I uprooted the family. By 1920 Sam had earned an M.A. from Columbia University when he became professor of political science, teaching at Dartmouth College in 1920 and 21. When Ken was seven years old his father began to teach at University of California, Berkeley.[1]

In high school, Ken played tennis and looked into Principia Mathematica. At the University of California he played soccer and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior. Professor Griffith C. Evans led Ken through the mathematical foundations of statistics and their utility in national planning. Ken joined the Communist Party and the Institute of Pacific Relations, which he served as secretary in 1933. Ken’s mother died in a gas heater explosion at home in 1935. The following year he was granted the A.B. degree and named to the Order of the Golden Bear. In 1937 he was granted a master’s degree and was selected by the Institute of Current World Affairs for foreign study. He participated in a Russian seminar and expected to study in Russia, but those plans of Walter S. Rogers fell through. He did briefly visit Russia in 1938, as a tourist, stocking up on inexpensive texts, before taking up study at London School of Economics. Professor J. D. Bernal was to make a strong impression on Ken, particularly with The Social Function of Science.[1]

Ken fell into a "low state of morale" and was rescued by Ruth McGovney, an Oakland schoolteacher and daughter of Berkeley law professor Dudley McGovney, a rival of Ken’s father. Accordingly, the father travelled to London in a vain effort to dissuade Ken from marriage, which took place July 25, 1938. Ruth had a leave of absence from her school for study at the Sorbonne, so the couple studied there for a year. In 1939 they travelled, including to Moscow where Ken visited the Kharkov Engineering-Economics Institute. Returning to California, Ken became a teaching assistant, assigned to mathematics of finance and calculus with analytic geometry.[1]

Ken’s work with the communist party led to alienation from his father and dismissal from his job. In 1942 he ran for California State Treasurer under the Communist banner. Ken's associations with J. Robert Oppenheimer were used as evidence in his trial. In World War II Ken attempted to join up, but until Ruth filed for divorce in June 1942, he could not be drafted. Ken's unit was sent to Kiska Island in the Aleutian chain. In May 1944, Ken married Jacqueline Bromley. His career in the military was recounted in Stars and Stripes (Europe) March 3, 1945.[1]

In 1946 Ken submitted his thesis, Mathematical Theory of Employment for the Ph.D.

Reviewing Dirk Struik’s Concise History of Mathematics in 1949, Ken articulated his interest:

Because of its close relations with science and philosophy, mathematics has always played a key role in the general development of both man’s ideas and his material means of existance [sic].[2]

President Laurence M. Gould of Carleton College in Northfield Minnesota offered Ken a teaching appointment that he held until 1973.

Reviewing A Survey of Modern Algebra, revised edition, in Econometrica, May noted:

It is sometimes forgotten that science and mathematics have developed most rapidly when new theories have been developed boldly in close relation to empirical knowledge and practical application.[3]

As a protest against the Vietnam War, in 1966 May signed a vow of tax resistance.[4] He moved to Canada the same year.

Ken is remembered for his Bibliography and Research Manual of the History of Mathematics (1973) published by University of Toronto Press. He made editorial contributions to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mathematics. He managed the compilation of an index for the first 80 volumes of American Mathematical Monthly and wrote numerous book reviews. Philip Enros compiled a bibliography of May’s writings that was published in 1984.[5]


  1. C. V. Jones, Philip C. Enros, Henry S. Tropp (1984) "Kenneth O. May, 1915 — 1977, his early life to 1946", Historia Mathematica 11(4): 359–79
  2. K. O. May (1949) Review: Concise History of Mathematics by D.J. Struik, Science & Society 13(4): 376,7 via JSTOR
  3. K.O. May (1954) Review: A Survey of Modern Algebra by Birkhoff and Mac Lane, Econometrica 22(3): 394 via JSTOR
  4. The Time Has Come (to withhold taxes) from Tri-College Consortium
  5. Philip C. Enros (1984) "Kenneth O. May — Bibliography", Historia Mathematica 11: 380 to 893
  • Albert C. Lewis (2004) "Kenneth O. May and Information Retrieval in Mathematics", Historia Mathematica 31(2): 186–95
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