Alexander Grothendieck, a French mathematician who won the Fields medal in 1966 for his groundbreaking work in algebra and geometry, has died at the age of 86. He passed away Thursday in a hospital in Saint-Girons in southwestern France, according to hospital staff who did not provide any further details.
It’s a seemingly normal end to the life of a man who was anything but. While he was one of the most important figures in 20th century mathematics, he never accepted the Fields medal, or the job offers that came with it. Perhaps inspired by his parents—his father a Russian anarchist who later died at Auschwitz, his mother a journalist—who left him in Berlin as a child to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Grothendieck also devoted his life to changing the world politically. He was part of the May 68 movement and involved in environmental and anti-war activism as well. In 1970, he quit his job at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (Institute of Higher Scientific Studies) after discovering that it received some military funding. He took a professorship at a smaller university, but found himself focusing on nuclear disarmament.
In his later life, possibly due to suffering from mental illness, Grothendieck completely removed himself from public life. He is rumored to have descended into religious mania while living remotely, and refusing visitors, in a small village in the Pyrenees. In the 1990s, he gave over 20,000 pages of material to a friend who years later gave them to the University of Montpellier, where the documents remain locked away in the university’s archives.
Read remembrances of this unique man and his work here.