The Biography of Niels Henrik Abel: His last years

When Abel returned to Norway at the end of May 1827, his journey abroad was regarded more or less as a failure. He had not published anything in Paris, and he had not visited the great Gauss in Göttingen.

Abel, to be sure, had published his works in Crelle’s Journal, but what prestige did this new journal in Berlin really have? Unable to renew his grant, Abel advertised in the newspapers for private pupils and took out a private loan, which he was never able to repay. In addition, to his own expenses, he also wanted to repay his family’s debt. When the Ministry of Finance, in response to a new application, refused again to give Abel a grant, the Academic Collegium decided to support him with its own funds.

Abel now had only a year and a half to live, and this period is filled with an impressive series of treatises, which he submitted one after the other to Crelle in Berlin, who was unable to publish them as rapidly as they were submitted. Abel worked on algebraic equations, elliptic functions and infinite series, and he submitted pioneering contributions in all of these fields, most of which were sent to Berlin. In the summer of 1828, after an intense race to publish with the German mathematician, C.G.J. Jacobi, Abel published an important treatise on elliptic functions in Astronomical Notes (Astronomische Nachrichten) in Altona, Germany.

In the spring of 1828, Abel’s financial situation improved somewhat when he was appointed temporarily as a senior lecturer and given a number of teaching jobs while one of the professors, Christopher Hansteen, was away on a scientific expedition; but there was no permanent post available to him at the University of Christiania, and after much doubt, Abel had decided to accept any post that might be offered him in Berlin. In the summer of 1828, it looked like he would succeed in obtaining such a post. For six weeks, he was together with his fiancé, who was now a governess at Froland jernverk near Arendal, and they looked forward to being able to marry and settle in Berlin.

However, the post in Berlin, again eluded him, and in the autumn of 1828, Abel worked intensely and feverishly in Christiania. He was bedridden and ill for many weeks that autumn and admitted that his work on equation theory now exceeded his physical capacity. As Christmas approached, he wanted to return to his fiancé and friends at the iron works in Froland. He got there by sled, cold and coughing; and after a Christmas ball, when he wanted to go out and cool off, he began to cough up blood. For twelve weeks, he was bedridden, under the supervision of the district’s best doctor, and at times he felt better. He managed to write one mathematical paper: two or three pages in which he again tried to formulate the main thoughts to his extensive Paris treatise which he thought was lost forever.

The sickbed became a deathbed; the consumption got the upper hand. Abel, who was only 26 years old, thought it was terrible that it would all soon be over.

He cursed his God and the science of his day, which had been unable to overcome his illness; but his rage alternated with periods of apathy, and in quieter moments he worried about his fiancé, who would now have no one to provide for her. Abel consulted his friend B.M. Keilhau, a lecturer in Geology at the University and one of the young scientists with whom he had travelled on his journey in Europe, and solemnly requested that Keilhau take care of her. A year and a half later, the two of them actually did get married and were rumoured to have lived together happily for the rest of their lives; but for Niels Henrik, the end came on 6 April 1829.

Without knowing what had happened in Froland, words were written about and to Abel two days later, on 8 April, in both Paris and Berlin. From Paris came the news that the Paris treatise had finally been found again, and words of praise began to stream in immediately. The next year, the Academy’s prize was awarded to Abel for his work, and the money eventually went to his alcoholic mother at Gjerstad. From Berlin, Crelle wrote a happy letter on 8 April announcing that Abel was now guaranteed a permanent post there. Crelle wrote, "As far as your future is concerned, you can now be completely at ease. You belong among us and are secure," and he concluded, "You will be coming to a good country, to a better climate, closer to science and to sincere friends who appreciate you and are fond of you."

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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
Web editor: Anne-Marie Astad
Design and technical solutions: Ravn Webveveriet AS