Incalculable Odds: The story of how one professor (unintentionally) wound up at UC Berkeley

by Sonia Kahn from the Bancroft Digital Collections Unit.

Berkeley is known for its world-renowned professors. Just walking through the campus today you can spot parking spaces reserved for Nobel laureates. Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon at Berkeley, which has had prominent faculty on its staff for decades. Perhaps one of the most distinguished members to grace the Berkeley faculty, and one with a fascinating history to boot, was a professor in the mathematics department named Alfred Tarski.

Newsclipping with photograph of Alfred Tarski
[BANC MSS 84/69 c], Alfred Tarski Papers, BANC MSS 84/69 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Alfred Tajtelbaum (who would later change his last name to the more Polish sounding Tarski) was born January 14, 1901 in Warsaw, Poland. He was born to Polish Jewish parents but would later convert to Roman Catholicism due to the discriminatory hiring practices of Polish universities in the interwar period.

In 1918, Tarski began his academic career, entering the University of Warsaw. He studied mathematics under prominent logicians and philosophers of the time. In 1924, Tarski graduated with a Ph.D., becoming the youngest person to obtain a doctorate from the University of Warsaw. Between 1924 and 1939, Tarski worked intermittent positions at the University of Warsaw, but mostly made a living by teaching math to secondary school students. This was actually a common practice in Europe prior to the Second World War as university positions tended to pay poorly. Meanwhile, as he taught the basics to teenagers, he wrote various papers and books, earning himself an international reputation as a mathematical logician and for his ideas on truth, which the current writer will not attempt to summarize here because they are well beyond her.

In 1939 Tarski was invited to attend the Unity of Science Congress in September, held at Harvard University. In August 1939, Tarski boarded a ship bound for the United States. It would be the last ship to leave Poland before Nazi forces invaded the country on September 1, igniting World War Two. He left behind a wife and two children in Warsaw who he would not see again until 1946.

Effectively exiled in the US, Tarski worked at various research institutions including Harvard, before settling on the world’s best research university: UC Berkeley. In 1942 he joined Berkeley’s mathematics department, and was eventually tenured in 1945 before being awarded a full professorship in 1948. In 1946 his wife and two children, who had all survived the devastation of the war, joined Tarski in California.

Tarski stayed on at Berkeley, helping to create an esteemed graduate program in logic, until 1968 when he retired, becoming a professor emeritus. However, he remained devoted to Berkeley and students even in retirement, continuing to teach until 1973, and supervising doctoral theses until his death in 1983.


Today the Bancroft Library maintains a collection of materials relating to Tarski’s tenure as a mathematician at UC Berkeley. Among them are personal documents of Tarski’s, from his Polish passport, to a dinner menu saved from his sailing voyage to the US in 1939.

Digital reproductions of selected items are available: Alfred Tarski papers (BANC MSS 84/69 c)