Paul Bernays (1888–1977)

Professor of higher mathematics at ETH Zurich

Paul Bernays was born in London on 17 October 1888. Although a citizen of the City of Zurich, he came from a German-Jewish academic family and was raised in Berlin, where he attended the Köllnische Gymnasium from 1895 to 1907. He initially embarked on a degree at the Technische Hochschule Charlottenburg in 1907, but switched to the University of Berlin six months later, where he studied mathematics, philosophy and theoretical physics. He eventually moved to Göttingen to continue his studies.   

Promoting and habilitation

In the spring of 1912, he completed a PhD under Edmund Landau and at the end of the same year, a postdoctoral degree at the University of Zurich under Ernst Zermelo, who was a full professor at the time. From the end of 2012 to the spring of 1919, Bernays was a private lecturer at the University of Zurich. 

Cooperation with David Hilbert

In the autumn of 1917, he returned to Göttingen, where he worked for David Hilbert conducting basic mathematical research. In 1919 he completed a postdoctoral degree at the University of Göttingen and was an untenured associate professor from 1922.  

Second World War and research

As a Jew, he lost his position in Göttingen in 1933 and returned to Switzerland, where he gave special lectures on logic and the basics of mathematics at ETH Zurich. He qualified as a private lecturer at ETH Zurich for the winter semester 1939/1949 and was eventually appointed associate professor of higher mathematics in 1945, following a request from the Department of Mathematics and Physics. He resigned from this professorship in 1959. Bernays died in Zurich on 18 September 1977 after a short illness.

Although the majority of Bernays' research was devoted to basic questions of mathematics, he also tackled philosophical topics. He and David Hilbert co-wrote the ground-breaking two-volume workGrundlagen der Mathematik, which was published in 1934 and 1939.  


Bernays Handschrift

End of the letter from Paul Bernays to Hermann Weyl from 16 February 1935, thanking him for the very positive feedback on his bookGrundlagen der Mathematikand the invitation to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (ETH-Bibliothek Zurich, Hs 91:11).


Paul Bernays is primarily present at ETH-Bibliothek thanks to his extensive handwritten personal papers (external link). These holdings, which are curated by the ETH Zurich University Archives, rank among the ever popular and useful science-historical sources and include manuscripts, letters and biographical documents.

Furthermore, the ETH Zurich University Archives also curate documents from the archives of the Swiss School Council on Paul Bernays' work at ETH Zurich and a biographical file with additional biographical information. Besides an extensive portrait file, ETH-Bibliothek's Image Archive also contains the audio recording of an interview with Bernays from the summer of 1977.