Ivan Niven

Ivan Niven was born in Vancouver, B. C. on October 25, 1915. He passed away in Eugene, Oregon, on May 9, 1999, after a series of illnesses. A "Celebration of Life" is scheduled for 3:00 p.m., Saturday, June 19, to be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene, 477 East 40th Avenue.

Ivan earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees (1934 and 1936) at the University of British Columbia, and he was awarded his Ph.D. in 1938 at the University of Chicago. He worked with the famous algebraist and number theorist Leonard Eugene Dickson.

Ivan held a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in 1938-1939. This was a valuable year because he was influenced by the great Hans Rademacher, and this is where he met Herbert Zuckerman who became a life-long friend and co-author. Ivan was then on the faculty of the University of Illinois for three years and Purdue University for five years. In 1947 he returned to the Northwest and joined the faculty of the University of Oregon, where he became Professor Emeritus in 1982. He also had visiting appointments at the University of British Columbia (1953), Stanford University (1957-58) and the University of California (1964-65).

Ivan married Betty Mitchell from Chicago in September 1939. Their son Scott was born in February 1942. He now teaches mathematics and astronomy at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington. For several decades, Betty was active in local community issues and served on local and state planning boards and other committees. A local newspaper article about her career referred to Queen Elizabeth.

Ivan was a key figure in the department and, in particular, he played a major role in developing a Ph.D. program in mathematics. In fact, he was the advisor for the first three Oregon Ph.D.'s: Luther Cheo (1950), John Maxfield (1951) and Margaret Maxfield (1951). In all, Ivan had sixteen Ph.D. students. Though he chose to never be department head or a dean at the University of Oregon, Ivan was a key figure across campus and was highly respected for his calm demeanor and sensible ideas. He received the Charles E. Johnson Memorial Award at the June 1981 commencement of the University of Oregon. With the help and support of Ivan's student, Robert E. Dressler, the university endowed the Niven Lecture series which began in 1994. The speakers, so far, have been Hugh L. Montgomery, Persi Diaconis, Michael Artin and David Eisenbud.

Ivan Niven has been the complete mathematician who was noted for outstanding teaching, popular books, a life-long active research program, and generous service to general mathematics community. Jerry Alexanderson was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon and took a course in applied mathematics from Ivan. This was well outside of Niven's primary areas of interest, but the course was so beautifully executed that it helped persuade Alexanderson to major in mathematics. Ivan was an outstanding lecturer, prized for his clarity and enthusiasm and his sense of humor. He was in demand nationwide into the 1980s. In 1951, he gave an invited address to the American Mathematical Society. In 1961 he gave the prestigious series of Hedrick Lectures which Ken Ross found particularly inspiring, and he was a travelling lecturer of the Mathematical Association of America during 1962-1966. In 1986 he gave the Leon Alaoglu Memorial Address at Cal Tech, and he gave the first in a series of annual Lonseth Lectures at Oregon State.

Ivan published over sixty papers, some with well-known co-authors such as Samuel Eilenberg, Paul Erdos (6 times), Nathan J. Fine, R. D. James, and H. S. Zuckerman (7 times). His areas of expertise were number theory, especially the areas of diophantine approximation and questions of irrationality and transcendance of numbers, and combinatorics. Ken Ross found two of the articles of special interest: his famous 1947 paper containing a simple proof that pi is irrational and his 1969 Monthly article on formal power series, for which he received the Lester R. Ford Award. Ivan viewed his most significant paper to be, "Uniform distribution of sequences of integers" (Transactions 1961), which started an entire theory.

Ivan wrote seven books, including the Carus Monograph "Irrational Numbers," the Random House publications "Numbers: Rational and Irrational" and "Mathematics of Choice/How to Count without Counting," the MAA Dolciani Series publication on "Maxima and Minima Without Calculus," "Diophantine Approximations," and the classic text "An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers" co-authored with Herbert S. Zuckerman. A fifth edition, co-authored with Hugh L. Montgomery, was published in 1991. His lean and lively 172-page book "Calculus: An Introductory Approach," was published in 1961. Five of these books are still in print and collectively have been published in 11 different languages.

Throughout his career, Ivan was active in the wider mathematical community, especially within the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). He was elected First Vice President for the years 1974-1975, and he served as President in 1983-1984. For many years, he was a valuable member of the Executive and Finance Committees, which serve as the "Board of Trustees" for the Board of Governors. He was a moderating influence, fiscally conservative, and cautious about new ventures.

Besides holding major offices in the MAA, Ivan served on numerous AMS (American Mathematical Society) and MAA committees. He was a Member-at-Large of the Council of the AMS from 1966 to 1968 and served on at least eight other AMS committees. He also served on at least thirty MAA committees. He was a valuable member of all of them, but his greatest contributions were on committees concerned with publications of books, especially the New Mathematical Library series on which he worked with Anneli Lax for nearly thirty years. In 1989 he was presented the MAA's highest award for achievement, the Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics (now called the Yueh-Gin Gung and Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics).

Ivan was also active in the MAA at the local level. He served as Governor of the Pacific Northwest Section from 1955 to 1958 and again from 1979 to 1982. In addition, he served on nominating committees and other ad hoc sectional committees.

Ivan especially enjoyed classical music and was a supporter of the Eugene Symphony, the Mozart Players, and the Chamber Music Society. He was also an avid reader and for a long period, before ill health prevented it, he went salmon fishing regularly on charter boats out of Winchester Bay. Swimming was his sport, and he swam daily as long as his health allowed.

Throughout his career, Ivan was the ultimate gentleman and consummate diplomat. In every situation he was thoughtful and wise, and he always gave more than he received. He made many significant and lasting contributions to mathematics, and he performed his many tasks in an exemplary way earning him the highest respect of the entire mathematical community.


  1. Award for Distinguished Service to Ivan Niven, by Kenneth Ross, American Mathematical Monthly 96 (1989), 3-4.
  2. A conversation with Ivan Niven, by Donald J. Albers and G. L. Alexanderson, College Mathematics Journal 22 (1991), 371-402.

Overheard in Deady: Ivan was such a sweetheart. Hazel Jones

Written by Kenneth Ross Department of Mathematics