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Prof. RNDr. Otakar Borůvka, DrSc.

* 10. 5. 1899
Uherský Ostroh
state examinations and qualification in mathematics and physics for teaching in secondary schools
RNDr. (Doctor of Natural Sciences)
docent at MU
extraordinary professor at MU
ordinary professor at MU
corresponding member of ČSAV (Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences)
academician of ČSAV
Dr.h.c at UK in Bratislava
Honorary citizen of Brno
Honorary citizen of Uherský Ostroh
✝ 22. 7. 1995

Professor Otakara Borůvka is mentioned in publications, not only specialized, as a doyen and a legend of mathematics in Brno, one of the long leading figures of the mathematical life in Moravia and the whole of the former Czechoslovakia, an outstanding representative of our science abroad, whose contribution to our mathematics having gained footing in global mathematics was extraordinary. The great teacher, scientific life organizer and most of all a very humble, versatile and outstanding person, worked at the Faculty of Science of the university in Brno for nearly fifty years, where he created permanent values and raised a whole generation of Brno-based mathematicians. Regardless of serious health issues caused by old age, his vitality and incredible mental freshness allowed him to be involved in the mathematical and social life both at the university and in our society, as well as abroad, until the very end of his life.

Otakar Borůvka was born on May 10, 1899 in Ostrožské Předměstí in the school building No. 400 as a son of Jan Borůvka, the then headmaster of the local primary and secondary school, and his wife Emilie. He attended the first to fifth grades of primary school and the first grade of secondary school in his home town, followed by the second to seventh years of grammar school in Uherské Hradiště. He was a brilliant student who fell in love with mathematics as well as other subjects, he was interested in music. Under the pressure of the WWI events, after finishing the sixth year in 1916, he transferred to the Military Realschule in Hranice na Moravě for the third (last) year and after graduation, he started studying at the Military Technical Academy in Mödling near Vienna. In 1918 he entered the Czech Technical University in Brno as a civil engineering student. And here his exceptional mathematical knowledge was noticed by Professor Matyáš Lerch who offered him an assistant position at the Institue of Mathematics of the Faculty of Science of the newly established Masaryk University in Brno, where Otakar Borůvka graduated and habilitated in 1928.

After the death of Prof. M. Lerch, the study of differential geometry was introduced to Otakar Borůvka by Prof. E. Čech who facilitated his two-year stay at Sorbonna in Paris with Prof. E. Cartan (1926–1927 and 1929–1930) and a half-year stay in Hamburg with Prof. W. Blaschke (1930–1931). In 1927 he got a binding offer for a position at the university in Zagreb in Yugoslavia as a mathematics professor, which he declined in the hope of a possible engagement in Brno. In 1934 he was appointed extraordinary professor and in 1946 (effective from 1940) an ordinary professor at the Masaryk University in Brno.

In 1935, Otakar Borůvka married the daughter of Prof. Leopold Grimm from the Czech Technical University in Brno. A year later, their son Otakar was born and then their daughter Yvona, in 1944. During the time of the Protectorate, in 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo and questioned, he spent several weeks in prison due to the suspicion of having meetings with his colleagues and listening to foreign radio, which was very strictly punished. In 1942 he and his family moved to Uherský Ostroh temporarily.

After the end of WWII, he lectured at several universities in Brno and in 1947–1958 also at the Faculty of Science of the Slovak University in Bratislava (later the Comenius University), where he commuted beyond his duties in Brno every other week for one day; he was doing this for free. The roots of his selflessness can be found in his family upbringing. “I should probably add that I had a very nice relationship to Slovak people. When I used to go for walks as a young boy with my dad, we would look in the direction of Veselí nad Moravou and of course, we saw hills. My dad used to say: Look, over the hills, the White Carpathians, our Slovak brothers live, under strong cultural and political oppression. I remembered it forever. My dad always talked very kindly about Slovak people, which made me like them, so when the representatives of the Faculty of Science in Bratislava came over in 1947 looking for lecturers, I volunteered immediately. The faculty was established during the war and it had no personnel union with the Technical University. And like I said, I went there for 11 and a half years and I have the fondest memories of this time. I met young people there, enthusiastic, talented, honest, who I grew very fond of... From the very beginning, I used my stays in Slovakia for organizing joint trips, which helped strengthen our mutual friendship. We used to call them the mathematical trips and mostly students of mathematics from Brno and Bratislava, sometimes from other Slovak universities, participated. At first, tens of people went for the trips, later sometimes even a hundred of students..." The joint three-day wanders in the area of the Moravian-Silesian border took place until 1985 and had their own routine. Prof. Borůvka and his harmonica were the main characters. The singing started by the mathematic anthem, followed by a beloved poem and then folk songs from Moravia and Slovakia, including the professor’s favorite.

In 1953, Otakar Borůvka was elected a corresponding member, in 1965 a regular member of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (CSAS) In 1968, he signed the “Two Thousand Words" manifesto, which he was persecuted for during normalization and was banned from public appearances. In 1970, after 50 years at the Faculty of Science of the Brno University, he was forced to leave, and started his scientific work at the Institute of Mathematics of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Brno. The Academy was established in 1969, with great contribution of Prof. Borůvka, who worked there actively until the end of his life.

In the course of his fifty-year-long presence at the Brno University, Otakar Borůvka held a number of significant roles, in particular in scientific boards and university committees, in committees of the Ministry of Education, in the Mathematics Committee of CSAS, in committees of the Union of Czechoslovak Mathematicians and Physicists (UCSMP) and as an editor or member of editorial boards of professional journals.
Otakar Borůvka is the author of 90 scientific publications including several monographs and a number of popular scientific and bibliographic publications. His scientific work reflects the development of global and Czechoslovak mathematics in several areas. With his life-long work, he made a significant contribution to the development of differential geometry, algebra and the theory of differential equations. “...and we concluded it was absolutely necessary that the theory of differential equations would be promoted in our country, as it is important in terms of application and it was quite neglected here before the war. As we know, differential equations are very suitable for the description of the progress of natural and technical phenomena. They are of great significance for the description of physical phenomena in particular. And because there was nobody who would take charge of this work, I said I would take on the task myself, although it was not an easy decision for me. It meant I would have to change the field of my scientific work again. I first changed my job when I transferred from analysis to differential geometry, then I moved to algebra and now I was supposed to focus on a new field of differential equations, my knowledge at the time being only poor. But I went for it with enthusiasm and soon I found a scientific problem. I think I have solved it with the best success I have achieved in this field. I have found a broad, very useful and hopeful solution."

"The work of Borůvka includes not only significant discoveries that were unresolved for many years before; it also demonstrates a deep sense of thorough elaboration of the matter. In all of his works we can see a conceptual approach to the issues discussed broadly and in all details. He uses his knowledge from other fields to see the broad context of various directions of mathematical research. Borůvka does not aim to solve individual problems; he forms theories elaborated to such extent and depth that they have often been used by mathematicians for long periods of time. Similarly, he never completely leaves one field of mathematics when moving to the next. In the same way he uses analysis in algebra, he fully applies his knowledge of the methods and outputs of algebra and differential geometry in the theory of differential equations." (Prof. Neuman)

The significance of the scientific achievements of Otakar Borůvka is also demonstrated by the international response and a number of awards and honors, both national and international, including the Medal of the Universities in Brussels and Liège (1948), Euler’s medal of the German Academy in Berlin (1957), Euler’s medal of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. (1960), honorary membership in the Union of Czechoslovak Mathematicians and Physicists (1962), Medal of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow (1964), honorary doctorate from the Comenius University in Bratislava (1969), Bolzano Honorary Medal of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1969), gold medals from the Comenius (1965), Palacký (1968), J. E. Purkyně (1969) universities, Medal of UCSMP for Teaching Scientists (1979), Gold Medal of the Faculty of Law, Charles University in Bratislava (1980), Gold Medal of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University in Bratislava (1985), Commemorative Medal for Merit in Development of Mathematics and Physics of UCSMP (1987), Gold Plaque for Merit in Science and Mankind awarded by the CSAS Presidium (1989), 1st Degree Medal of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University (1989), Gold Commemorative Medal of BUT in Brno (1989), Medal for Merit in Development of Mathematics and Physics awarded by USMP (1989), Silver Mathematical Medal awarded by the Mathematical Scientific Section of UCSMP (1989), honorary doctorate from the Masaryk University in Brno (1994).

Naturally, the significant findings of academic Borůvka have brought numerous invitations for lectures at foreign universities: Brussels, Liège (1948), Warsaw, Krakow, Wrocław (1955), Bucharest, Iași (1956), Budapest (1960), Paris (1961), Berlin, Greifswald, Rostock, Halle (1962), Bucharest, Iași, Cluj (1963), Stuttgart, Giessen, Tübingen (1964), Rome, Florence/1967), London, Cambridge, Coventry, Paris (1968) and at international conferences and congresses – USSR, Italy, England, Romania, Hungary, Poland, GDR, Scotland, Austria.

Otakar Borůvka paid special attention to the education of young scientists. Long before research students’ positions were introduced, he was bringing up future mathematicians using methods not very different from research student training. He assigned particular tasks in algebra, geometry, analysis and other fields and by targeted advice he helped overcome the initial hurdles. Most mathematicians working at universities in Moravia and Slovakia are his students or the students of his students.

Not only they remember this unique, humble man as an important scientists as well as a helper and advisor at times of success and failure to friends and anyone who turned to him asking for help or advice. Borůvka completely disproved the idea of an unapproachable, withdrawn person that we imagine when we hear the words "significant mathematician". "The students saw him as an exceptionally capable and kind old man, whose lectures were prepared meticulously, proofs clear and comprehensible... Before lectures, he would be interested in every student individually, how they were doing and so on... We were also surprised by him addressing us mister and miss instead of the obligatory comrade and comradess. He never raised his voice and gave the impression of a good and caring teacher..." And it was the solidarity of the mathematicians that helped Borůvka, together with his faith in God, carry the weight of sadness and trouble that fate had prepared for him. The greatest help was coming from his most loyal student, Prof. František Neuman.

Professor Otakar Borůvka, a world renowned mathematician, honorable citizen of Brno (1994) and Uherský Ostroh (1995) died on July 22, 1995 in Brno, aged 96.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, his memorial was revealed on May 10, 1999 at the Honorary Burial Ground of the Central Cemetery in Brno.

Sound memories of prof. Otakar Borůvky (selection from recordings from 1986-1987)

Ten years ago, in the spring of 1989, we prepared ceremonial meetings of the Brno branch of the Union of Czechoslovak Mathematicians and Physicists on the 90th anniversary of prof. Borůvka. Prof. Borůvka was mentally alert, only his legs wouldn't listen to him, as he put it. Participants will certainly remember that his greeting was projected from the video.
Prof. Borůvka maintains lively contacts with its colleagues and students, and visiting it has always been interesting and encouraging. I was there with prof. Neuman is a frequent host. I therefore asked him for his views and memories for publication in materials that are being prepared for his nineties. I was surprised by his statement that "some time ago I expressed a number of my memories and opinions on the tapes of Dr. He told Halam from the Moravian Museum and somewhere about it with similar requests, but probably no one took it seriously." Based on this information, I sought out Dr. Halamu, arranged the loan of a pile of unprocessed raw Borovýchek recordings and, in return, promised to process them for the purposes of the museum. The task was taken over by dr. French. The result was four cassettes of continuous prepared recordings.
The written form of selected games was prepared by prof. Milan Jelínek, later rector of MU. The set of recordings then became the basis for the book by Otakar Borůvka, which was chosen for publication in the Personalities edition of Masaryk University by Z. Třešňák, P. Šarmanová and B. Půža.
Prof. He listened to Borůvka and the edited recordings and decided that it would be good to finish the memories mainly by telling about contacts and cooperation with important mathematicians of the interwar period. The recordings were made by doc. Zuzana Došlá and dr. Anna Sekaninová. Unfortunately, these two cartridges are not currently available.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of prof. Borůvka available a selection of his narration, which was again prepared by doc. Masaryk University, in the firm belief that it brings the personality of man and scientist, pedagogues, organizer and witness closer, to his life and work, is highly valued by Masaryk University, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, academia and the general public administration.

Brno, April 1999
Jaromír Vosmanský

May 10, 1989 - A scientific seminar organized on the occasion of the 90th birthday of Otakar Borůvka
     1995 - Funeral ceremony for Prof. RNDr. Otakar Borůvka, DrSc.
1998 - Placing the remains of Prof. Borůvka at the Honorary Burial Site in Brno
May 10, 1999 - Celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Otakar Borůvka's birth
May 11, 2009 - Memorial Assembly on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the birth of Prof. Otakar Borůvka
May 24, 2009 - Revealing of the Otakar Borůvka Memorial Plaque
Celebrations on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the birth of prof. Otakar Borůvka