Bullitt (William Marshall) Collection of Rare Mathematics and Astronomy, 1482-1957

Descriptive Summary

Bullitt (William Marshall) Collection of Rare Mathematics and Astronomy, 1482-1957
Bullitt, William Marshall
370 volumes
Finding Aid Author
Processed by: Archives Staff; machine-readable finding aid created by:Eric Weig
University of Louisville

Collection Overview

Scope and Content
Louisville attorney William Marshall Bullitt began to collect rare mathematics books in 1936. Building upon a family history of book collecting and his own passion for mathematics, Bullitt set out to gather first editions by the twenty-five greatest mathematicians of all time, a goal established during a parlor game instigated by his friend, mathematician G. H. Hardy (1877-1947). Within a decade Bullitt had amassed over three hundred volumes by sixty mathematicians and astronomers including Gauss, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes. Following his death his wife Nora gave the collection to the University of Louisville. Bullitt's files of correspondence with mathematicians and rare book dealers, notably Bernard Quaritch, joined the collection in 1980, thanks to the initiative of University of Louisville's mathematics professor Richard M. Davitt. Bullitt's grandson, Lowry Watkins Jr. has recently established an endowment to expand the collection. Although William Marshall Bullitt enjoyed success as an expert in actuarial law and even served as solicitor general of the United States under President Taft, his avocation as a mathematician kept him active in the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America. He participated in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, served on the visiting committee for the department of mathematics at Harvard University, and corresponded with Albert Einstein. Einstein's gratitude for Bullitt's sponsorship of Karl Loewner during the war is reflected in signed copies of the great physicist's work found in the collection. The presence of monumental works by Copernicus and Kepler, along with Rheticus' first statement of the Copernican system, Narratio Prima (1540) is due to the advice of savvy book dealers and Bullitt's own instincts as a collector desiring books of great rarity and value. Bullitt's most prized addition to the collection was Abel's Mèmoire sur les èquations algèbriques which he sought for years, finally obtaining a copy in 1951 for $500, an "outrageous price" in his estimation. Another of many choice volumes is the first edition of Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687) with annotations on the errata leaf in Newton's hand.