From TopCom, Volume 11, #1
I met John Isbell for the first time in June 1952 in Lawrence, Kansas at a conference that lasted several weeks on eigenvalue problems directed by Nachman Aronszajn, I was interested in restoring an incorrect proof by Edwin Hewitt of a theorem on rings of continuous functions. John and I did most of the work while standing in line at a cafeteria at lunch time, and soon I handed him a first handwritten draft of 13 pages. When he countered with a little more than 2 pages, we realized that we had a problem that continued to plague us with the 6 papers we published as co-authors. John was much quicker and more knowledgeable than me, but impatient to the point of regarding any kind of redundancy as a crime. By my insistence that sufficient detail be provided to the reader to be understandable, we were able to collaborate successfully, and what I and many other mathematicians learned from John was well worth putting up with his impatience when asked questions. However irritable he could be, he would supply missing parts of arguments, and would admit to making errors when he could not supply them. (Unlike most mathematicians, he always wrote introductions to drafts of papers first-and was not bothered when he often had to rewrite them. The end products were almost error free.) Throughout his mathematical life, Isbell's work was highly original and insightful, showed knowledge of the appropriate mathematical literature, was largely error free, but written tersely to a degree that many found painful. He disliked being told what he already knew and did not want to tell others what he thought they ought to know.
He attend four different undergraduate institutions and became interested in mathematics during his senior year spent at the University of Chicago, where his intelligence was appreciated, but his terse writing and lack of discipline was not.
After a brief stint at Oklahoma State University, in 1951-52, he dropped out and was employed in Washington D.C. where he wrote what became his doctoral dissertation when he spent 1953-54 as a graduate student at Princeton University.(He wrote 19 papers in game theory-the last one appeared in 1969.) His reward for finishing so quickly was being drafted into the U.S. Army at the end of the Korean war. Without any joint planning in advance, we worked together again at the Institute for advanced study in 1956-57. From there he went on to the University of Washington. During his lifetime he also had "permanent" appointments at Case Western Reserve University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo interrupted by visiting appointments at a long list of other institutions where his research accomplishments made him welcome. He wrote over 140 reviewed publications under his own name, plus a substantial number under pseudonyms (e.g., John Rainwater and H.C. Enos). This does not count a large number of brief tersely written (often critical) reviews, or his published poetry (some of which I saw, but can no longer locate).
His main areas of specialization were game theory, general topology including uniform spaces, ordered algebras, and category theory, but he often needed tools from other areas such as algebraic topology, number theory, or combinatorics to which he made original contributions as well. He absorbed mathematics like a sponge and was a masterful jack of all mathematical trades.
He was born in 1931. His father was an army officer, so Isbell lived in many places as a child. He died in 2005 as a result of consequences of a badly done biopsy some years before. He had little enthusiasm for life when he could no longer do mathematics. He is survived by three children and an ex-wife.
I append an interview of John Isbell by his colleague Kenneth Magill that appeared in Topology Atlas in 1996 that captures his personality, the breadth of mathematical knowledge and is more informative than anything I have written above.
I append also a brief paper by his colleague William Lawvere that tells much Isbell's contributions to Category Theory. Finally, I am indebted to Scott Williams for valuable help in preparing this obituary.
Copyright © 2006 by Topology Atlas. All rights reserved. Published February 3, 2006.