Zygmund William Birnbaum Photograph Collection, circa 1930-1990  PDF

Overview of the Collection

Birnbaum, Z. W. (Zygmund William), 1903-2000
Zygmund William Birnbaum Photograph Collection
circa 1930-1990 (inclusive)
59 photographs
2 slides
(1 box)
Collection Number
Images documenting the professional life of University of Washington mathematician Dr. Zygmund William Birnbaum, as well as images of friends and relatives from Lwów, Poland.
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections
Special Collections
University of Washington Libraries
Box 352900
Seattle, WA
Telephone: 206-543-1929
Fax: 206-543-1931
Access Restrictions

The collection is open to the public.

English, Polish

Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Zygmund William “Bill” Birnbaum (1903-2000), was for thirty-five years professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Washington (1939-1974).

Zygmund William Birnbaum was born in Lwów, Austria-Hungary, on October 18, 1903, to Ignacy and Lina Birnbaum. He attended grade and high schools (gymnasium) in Lwów and Vienna, and then, in deference to his family's wishes that he pursue a "practical" degree, he obtained a master of law degree from the University of Lwów in 1925. He practiced law for a year, but during that time he resumed his studies in mathematics. In 1926 Birnbaum received a teaching certificate in mathematics. He taught at a gymnasium in Lwów from 1925 to 1929 while continuing his graduate studies in mathematics under Hugo Steinhaus and Stefan Banach, among others. He received his Ph.D. in 1929, with Steinhaus as his major professor.

After receiving his Ph.D., Birnbaum went directly to Göttingen, Germany, to continue his studies. Göttingen was central to world mathematics at that time, with such luminaries as David Hilbert, Edmund Landau, Richard Courant, Emmy Noether, and Felix Bernstein, among others, in residence. The city attracted many famous visitors, including Kolmogorov, Alexandrov, and von Mises, during 1929-31, when Birnbaum was there. It was during this time that political events began to portend an uncertain future for Germany generally and academic opportunities for Dr. Birnbaum in particular. Thus it was that he, following advice from Edmund Landau, completed a program leading to an actuarial certificate from Göttingen University's Institute of Insurance Mathematics, then headed by the mathematician-cum-biometrician, Felix Bernstein. In 1931 this permitted him to obtain a position as a life insurance actuary for the Phoenix Life Insurance Company in Vienna and a year later to return to Lwów as chief actuary at the company's Polish subsidiary.

After the Phoenix company went bankrupt in 1936, due in great part to the worsening economic and political conditions in Germany, Dr. Birnbaum decided to try to emigrate to the U.S.A. Although the quotas were full for years to come, he was able to secure employment as a foreign correspondent for a major Polish newspaper. This enabled him to go to New York in June 1937 on a visitor's visa obtained for him by his relative, newspaper editor Ludwik Rubel. During his time in New York, Birnbaum came to know many Central European intellectuals, among them the famed Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, and renewed his friendships with fellow Polish émigré-mathematicians, Mark Kac, Stanislaw Ulam, and others.

Shortly after his arrival in New York, he also met his former Göttingen professor, Felix Bernstein, and accepted from him a research assistantship in biometrics at New York University. His statistical interests and knowledge, which had been kindled during his actuarial studies, grew rapidly under the influence of the leading statisticians at New York and Columbia Universities. In early 1939, Harold Hotelling of Columbia University, a Seattle native with a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Washington, brought to Birnbaum’s attention a position there in the Department of Mathematics. He applied, and supported by letters of recommendation from Courant, Landau, and Albert Einstein, his application was accepted. Thus began his long and distinguished career of over 60 years in the Seattle area, extending well beyond his university retirement in 1974.

Shortly after his arrival in Seattle, Birnbaum met his wife, Hilde Merzbach, while both of them were involved in assisting Jewish refugees arriving from Europe. Birnbaum succeeded in helping many people come to the United States, among them several talented scientists. Despite all of his exhaustive efforts, however, Birnbaum could not rescue his mother, father, and sister before they were taken prisoner by the Germans and transported to Bergen-Belsen. They eventually perished in Auschwitz.

During his long association with the University of Washington, Professor Birnbaum's academic contributions included teaching and service as well as research in the theory and applications of mathematics and statistics. Upon his arrival in Seattle he designed the theoretical courses which formed the basis of one of the first comprehensive undergraduate programs in mathematical statistics in the United States. By 1948 he had founded the Laboratory of Statistical Research which, through its long association with the Office of Naval Research, served to strengthen and expand the graduate and faculty components of these programs.

Professor Birnbaum’s research interests were broad, reflecting the breadth of his early training. He published original material in several areas of mathematics, statistics, and computation and made pioneering studies in reliability and life testing, with important applications in metal fatigue and health statistics. He made significant contributions to complex and functional analysis (including Birnbaum-Orlicz spaces), probabilistic inequalities (e.g. multi-dimensional Chebychev and maximal inequalities), non-parametric and distribution-free statistics (exact, asymptotic, and tabulated distributions), survey non-responses, reliability of complex systems, cumulative damage models, competing risks, survival distributions, and mortality rates.

Birnbaum’s service to his university and professional colleagues, as well as to society at large, went beyond his teaching and research. In 1946 he used his legal and actuarial backgrounds to prepare the legislation that became the statutory basis for the university's retirement system. In 1955 he organized the referendum that resulted in the inclusion of faculty in the social security system. He was responsible for carrying out the 1953 Kingston resolution that all Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS) "meetings shall be held on a completely non-segregated basis." He presented the resolution for permanence of this policy at the 1956 Annual IMS meeting held in Seattle. As a plaintiff during 1962-63 in the loyalty oath suit (Baggett v. Bullitt), he was the only witness whose testimony was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

In recognition of his many contributions, Z.W. Birnbaum was made a fellow of both the IMS (1949) and the American Statistical Association, and an elected member of the International Statistical Institute. Beginning in 1966 he was editor of the Academic Press monograph series in probability and statistics and was elected president of the IMS in 1964. He was also editor of the Annals of Mathematical Statistics during 1967-70. He received both Fullbright and Guggenheim awards with visiting positions held in Stanford, Rome, Jerusalem, and Paris. In 1984 Birnbaum received the prestigious S.S. Wilks Medal of the ASA for "his theoretical research, wide applications, leadership, inspiration and teaching." He died in December 2000.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

Black-and-white images, unless otherwise noted, of Dr. Birnbaum in his professional life at various national and international business meetings. The collection also contains images of his European relatives and friends, including Jakob, Rita, and Vivian Berger and Ala Manelska. English or Polish handwriting is found on the back of some photographs.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

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Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top


The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Z.W. BirnbaumReturn to Top

Container(s) Description Dates
Folder item
1 1 circa 1930s
1 2
Group attending Seminar on Scientific Computation, IBM Department of Education, Endicott, New York
Typed note taped to back identifies individuals.
November 16-18, 1949
1 3
Z.W. Birnbaum with five other men
1 4
Z.W. Birnbaum at U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station, California
Note on back: "Math Dept., University of Washington, Seattle." Refers to Birnbaum's position.
1 5-6
Z.W. Birnbaum attending International Statistical Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
Ge-Bo Foto, Hagersten, Sweden (photographer)
August 1957
1 7 September 3-8, 1958
1 8
Z.W. Birnbaum's passport photo
1 9
Group attending First International Symposium on Nonparametric Techniques, Indiana University
Individuals are identified on photograph.
June 1-6, 1969
2 10-13
Z.W. Birnbaum with others at SFVSC
SFVSC may refer to San Fernando Valley State College.
circa 1971
2 14
Z.W. Birnbaum with wife Hilde Birnbaum and two other couples at restaurant during European Meeting of Statisticians, Budapest, Hungary
Kemény László (photographer)
2 15
Z.W. Birnbaum with others at conference or lecture
Fairlight Company, London (photographer)
3 16-17
Z.W. Birnbaum retirement banquet
2 slides ; 35 mm.
4 18-21
Z.W. Birnbaum with others at Pacific Area Statistical Conference
circa 1982
4 22-25
Z.W. Birnbaum in classroom with Michael D. Perlman, students and others
circa 1990s
4 26
Z.W. Birnbaum with others at a Hewitfest banquet at UW Faculty Club.
Attendees pictured include Ann Birnbaum and mathematician Albert Nijenhuis. Hewitfest was a two-day eent (May 6-7, 1988) honoring UW mathematician Edwin Hewitt.
May 6, 1988
4 27
Z.W. Birnbaum with wife Hilde Birnbaum and man in classroom
1 photographic print : Polaroid
4 28
Z.W. Birnbaum with M. Newton

Relatives and Friends from Lwów, Poland Return to Top

Container(s) Description Dates
Folder item
5 29
Jakob Berger and daughter Vivian at beach, New York
5 30-33
Rita Berger and newborn daughter Vivian
July 1944
5 34-35
Rita Berger and daughter Vivian
5 36
Rita Berger and daughter Vivian in Fort Tryon Park, New York
May 1946
6 37-38
Vivian Berger
October 1944
6 39-41
Vivian Berger
7 42-44
Vivian Berger at Fort Tryon Park, New York
May 1946
7 45
Vivian Berger with sled in snow, Fort Tryon Park, New York
Winter 1947-1948
7 46-47
Ann Birnbaum at zoo during Christmas, New York
Decmeber, 1946
8 48
Ann and Richard Birnbaum as children
8 49
Melanie Koppel with Buick in Shaker Heights, Ohio
March 1940
8 50
Melanie Koppel
8 51
Ala Manelska, Poland
Oct. 1947
8 52
Ala Manelska, Poland
June 1954
8 53
Ala Manelska on vacation in Mszanie Dolnej, Poland
June 1958
8 54
Ala Manelska with Wawel dragon sculpture
8 55
Ala Manelska in Erfurt, Land Thuringen, East Germany
9 56-57
Ludwik Rubel
9 58
Ludwik Rubel with three men
G.A. Baworowski, London (photographer)
9 59
Henry Schaerf
circa 1940
9 60
Two men on a ship or ferry
Photograph sent to M. Stern with note on back: "With best regards, H. Birnbaum."
Container(s) Description Dates
Folder item
9 61
A frozen lake in Swistowej Valley, Tatra Mountains, Carpathian Range, aerial view
Photograph sent from L. Sternbach, Poland.

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Subject Terms :
  • College teachers--Photographs
  • Jewish college teachers--Photographs
  • Mathematicians--Photographs
  • Mathematics teachers--Photographs
  • Mathematics--Congresses--Photographs
  • Statisticians--Photographs
  • Visual Materials Collections (University of Washington)
  • World War, 1939-1945--Refugees--Photographs
  • Personal Names :
  • Berger, Rita, 1912---Photographs
  • Berger, Vivian--Photographs
  • Birnbaum, Z. W. (Zygmund William), 1903-2000--Photographs
  • Manelska, Ala--Photographs
  • Corporate Names :
  • International Statistical Institute
  • Geographical Names :
  • United States--Emigration and immigration
  • Form or Genre Terms :
  • Photographic prints
  • Slides