Memoir

Saunders Mac Lane

The University of Chicago

August 4, 1909 - April 14, 2005


Election Year: 1949
Scientific Discipline: Mathematics
Membership Type: Member

Saunders Mac Lane made major contributions to mathematics, particularly through his development of the concepts of categories, functions, and natural transformations––key concepts in the field of category theory. These concepts were once thought to be too abstract for practical use, but Mac Lane outlined the constructs of how mathematical structures and families of structures relate to one another. His theory of categories created a universal language for mathematicians, including a new vocabulary that set in motion advancements in the fields of computer science, mathematical physics, and linguistics.

Mac Lane took on many leadership roles within the scientific community. He served as president of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America, and as vice president of the American Philosophical Society. He was vice president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1973 to 1977. He served on numerous mathematical committees within the institution and chaired the Report Review Committee, which led to his working with researchers and topics in many different scientific fields. Through this chairmanship he was appointed a member of the National Science Board, where he provided science policy advice to the U.S. government. In 1989 he was awarded the National Medal of Science for his contributions to scientific achievement. He attended Yale University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1930, and in 1931 he earned his master’s degree from the University of Chicago. At the University of Göttingen, Germany, Mac Lane earned his PhD in 1934. Between the mid-1930s and 1940s, he taught math at Harvard University and Cornell University, before settling at the University of Chicago from 1947 to 1982.

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