The Biography of Niels Henrik Abel: Upbringing and schooling

The vicar, Søren Georg Abel, was an exceptional man in every way, and had long been dearly loved by his parishioners. He had been a student in Denmark at a time when the ideals and revolutionary ideas of the French enlightenment were in ascendance, and in all of his later work father Abel especially esteemed the rational and useful. His preaching was grounded in an unshakeable faith in man’s ability to penetrate life’s mysteries by following the path of reason.

In 1804, the vicar Abel and his family moved from Finnøy to Gjerstad in Aust-Agder County, where S.G. Abel succeeded his father, Hans Mathias Abel, who had been the vicar in that village for almost twenty years. It was at Gjerstad that Niels Henrik grew up, together with his elder brother, three younger brothers and a sister.

The vicar Abel continued his eager work of enlightening and improving the conditions of life for his parishioners. He was a full-blooded rationalist of the type who were later called "potato priest" (potetprest) because they seemed just as concerned with the physical nourishment and well being of their flock as they were with their souls.

He was actively involved in the age’s turbulent political situation, which resulted in the formation of the new nation of Norway in 1814, and the vicar Abel was twice elected as a representative to the Norwegian Storting. Niels Henrik’s mother seems to have been happiest in parties and festive company, and there is much evidence that she quickly became an alcoholic.

In the autumn of 1815, at the age of thirteen, Niels Henrik was sent away from home to the Cathedral School in Christiania.

After the major school reforms that took place around the turn of the century in 1800, a subject teacher system had replaced the old class teacher system in which one teacher had instructed a class in all of the subjects. The new arrangement also entailed that modern languages and the sciences were included in the curriculum, that pupils were treated more humanely and that the school’s educational activities were given greater priority. Where there once had been corporal punishment, that was meant to bolster the work ethic and conventional knowledge, the teacher was now supposed to appeal to the pupils’ sense of honour and reason, and emphasis was given to arousing each individual pupil’s interest. However, it did not take long before these new ideas were compromised. The school’s mathematics teacher, Hans Peter Bader, had a reputation for conducting his classes in the old-fashioned way with copying from the blackboard and a box on the ears for anyone who was unable to learn mathematics.

In November 1817, he made the fatal mistake of beating and thrashing a pupil so hard and so long that the bedridden pupil died eight days later. The other pupils refused to attend any more mathematics classes unless Bader was fired from his post, and the headmaster of the school had to hastily find a new mathematics teacher.

He turned to one of his former pupils, Bernt Michael Holmboe (1795-1850), who, in addition to the mathematics education that it was possible to obtain in Norway at that time, had also studied on his own.

Holmboe was inspired by new pedagogical ideas; he began to give the pupils independent projects, and it was not long before he discovered young Abel’s exceptional abilities. Holmboe gave Abel private tutoring and guided him further in the mathematical literature.

Young Abel’s enthusiasm for mathematical research problems, amazed and impressed his teachers, but they were also uneasy about the single-mindedness of his interest and concentration. In those days, classical languages and refinement were still the ideal.

The Biography of Niels Henrik Abel

The Biography of Niels Henrik Abel is written by Arild Stubhaug.

Arild Stubhaug: "Called Too Soon by Flames. Niels Henrik Abel and his Times", Springer, Heidelberg 2000

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The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
Drammensveien 78
N-0271 Oslo, Norway
Telephone: + 47 22 84 15 00
Fax: + 47 22 12 10 99
E-mail: abelprisen@dnva.no
Web editor: Anne-Marie Astad
Design and technical solutions: Ravn Webveveriet AS