André Bloch

“Above all is mathematics and its laws”

André Bloch was a well-known French mathematician whose pivotal works were mainly produced while in a mental hospital he was sent to after murdering 3 of his family members.

The Maniac Murders 

On November 17th, 1917, the mathematician André Bloch brutally took the lives of three innocent family members. He is most well-known for his work on function theory and specifically the development of Bloch’s constant. Despite there being lots of speculation regarding the attack, the truth about the event is yet to be uncovered. Some believed he killed his neighbour, while others were convinced he killed his mother-in-law. Bloch killed his own brother, uncle and aunt and then ran onto the streets screaming, resulting in his arrest. It was rumoured that Bloch only escaped execution because he was a war veteran. Both Bloch and his brother had been drafted for the first World War which interrupted both of their studies. André was deemed unfit for service when he fell off a post along with his brother who lost an eye. It was when they returned home, during a family meal, that André committed the murders. In the moment, it may have been jealousy towards his brother who seemed to outperform him academically. The story has a lot of uncertainty regarding motives. Due to Bloch being on leave from the army, the story was not very well publicised as it reflected badly on the army during a crucial time. 

A black-white photo of André Bloch.
André Bloch.
Image credit: mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk
A photograph of the former Maison de Charenton, taken in 2017.
The former Maison de Charenton in 2017.
Image credit: Chabe01, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bloch’s Time in Maison de Charenton 

After committing such an unspeakable act, Bloch was committed to a mental hospital, Maison de Charenton, in Paris. It was there that he began work on his theorem which had strong implications for the future of mathematics. Bloch spent hours on end sitting in a corner of his room in the asylum doing problem after problem. He never wanted to go outside like the other patients. When his psychiatrist, Henri Baruk, asked him about his motives for the murder, Bloch said he wanted to eliminate those in his family that had mental health issues. He spoke with no emotion or regret for what he had done, he believed that he was above such feelings. His view was that mathematics was factual and all that mattered. There is a thin line between being a genius and throwing away all human empathy to focus on maths, Bloch crossed this.  

Ethics  

If Bloch had not committed these murders, one might argue that we would not be as advanced in this field of mathematics today. Should he be celebrated for his work? Does he deserve to receive credit when he committed these appalling crimes? Bloch won the Becquerel Prize for his work on Bloch’s constant. His work was undeniably deserving of such a prize, but should he have been given this as it was arguably his murders that led him to the discovery? Does giving him this platform promote his behaviour? These are all prominent questions that we need to ask ourselves. 

Mathematical Mask 

Bloch was of Jewish ancestry which meant that his work produced during the war was released under an alias. Those that were working with Bloch at the time were unaware that he was in a mental asylum.  He would pretend that he was unwell to avoid meeting with his collaborators. This meant that many of those he worked with never had the chance to meet him before his eventual death on the 11th of October 1948. 


Author
Murrin McGavock

Bibliography

Cartan, Henri & Ferrand, Jaqueline, “The Case of André Bloch”, The Mathematical Intelligencer Vol. 10, 1988.

Campbell, Douglas, “Beauty and the Beast: The Strange Case of André Bloch”, The Mathematical Intelligencer Vol.7, 1985.

Hersh, Reuben & John-Steiner, Vera, “Loving and Hating Mathematics”, Page 131 O’Connor, J J & Robertson, E F, “André Bloch”, https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Bloch/ ,

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