The mathematician who received the Nobel Prize for Literature | The morning

A civil engineer, mathematician, economist, politician and playwright, José Echegaray y Eizaguirre from Madrid was the first Spaniard to receive a Nobel Prize. Having obtained it for his literary activity, which was almost a hobby for him, caused unease among the writers of his time. His versatile and brilliant personality, of great performance in the second half of the 19th century, was almost forgotten in today’s Spain.

A long and diverse life

Born in Madrid, he spent his childhood in Murcia, where his father, who was a doctor and botanist, had been transferred. There he attended all stages of formal education and showed an early inclination for mathematics. He returned to Madrid to study at the School of Roads, from which he graduated at the age of twenty with the best grades of his class and the title of Engineer of Roads, Canals and Ports, a profession that he exercised directing important works in various places of Spain. Also, as an engineer, he had very clear ideas of how to plan public works, with a decided commitment to the railroad (in a context of traffic that justified it), and he also promoted the use of reinforced concrete in Spain.

His study of mathematics did not decline despite his intense professional activity, which even led him to positions of great responsibility. At the age of 32 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Exact Sciences, in whose admission he gave a speech that was controversial, since it defended the importance of science, without being subject to strictly utilitarian purposes.

Years later he held the presidency of the Spanish Mathematical Society and wrote numerous works that contributed to the development of mathematics, such as “Calculus of variations” (1868), “Memory on the theory of determinants” (1868), ” Application of the determinants ”(1869),“ Mathematical theory of light ”(1871),“ Resolution of equations and Galois theory ”(1897 and 1892), and many others, also on topics of physics and engineering, to the point that In our days his facet as a scientist and engineer is considered more interesting than that of a man of letters. His prestige as a mathematician has earned the famous Julio Rey Pastor saying that with José Echegaray “Spanish mathematics had begun”.

At the end of his life, at the initiative of Lázaro Galdiano, he wrote his memoirs, where in an agile and almost humorous way he recounted his experiences, also as a politician, in a very interesting historical period, full of singular events in many of which he himself Echegaray was the protagonist. The personalities with whom he had dealings, his travels, what he lived in his teaching years and his experience in high government positions in which he had to promote important laws related to public works, make up an entertaining and substantial story.

His literary side

It is still amazing that, in the midst of such intense professional and political activity, to which was added a fruitful work in the field of pure sciences, José Echegaray has had time to write more than 60 plays.

It began with the one-act comedy “El libro talonario”, released under a pseudonym, since its author was then at the Ministry of Finance. This work was followed by many more, typically romantic in nature, almost all written in verse, which were continued with others on a more social theme.

The works were widely accepted by the public, although they also received harsh criticism from some Spanish authors. Echegaray’s prestige as a playwright was able to consolidate in several European countries, where his plays were translated and performed. Figures of such weight as Bernard Shaw and Luiggi Pirandello praised the work of Echegaray, who was not too aware of the judgments about what was for him almost a hobby that he had become fond of from a very young age.

In 1896 José Echegaray was elected a member of the Royal Spanish Academy.

The Prize of Discord

In 1904 José Echegaray received the Nobel Prize for Literature, shared with the Provençal poet Frédérick Mistral. The award was given to him “in consideration of his rich and inspired dramatic production which, in an independent and original way, has revived the great traditions and ancient glories of Spanish drama.”

The news provoked the rejection of a group of Spanish writers, many belonging to the generation of 98, among which were Azorín, Pío Baroja, Unamuno, the Machado brothers and Valle Inclán, who signed a manifesto making it clear that they would not support the tribute. to José Echegaray that was being programmed in Madrid. Despite the opposition of his colleagues, the tribute was carried out presided over by King Alfonso XIII and the following day there was a popular demonstration that ran through the streets from Plaza de Oriente to the National Library in support of Echegaray.

Of all those who felt the award received as an affront, the one who kept the least form was Valle Inclán, who called the award-winning “old idiot”. Azorín, however, some time before had recognized certain values ​​to the winner, writing that “in his work there are features and types that reveal a great conception of life, his theater has served as a link between Romanticism and modern trends, more serene and delicate ”.

It is worth reflecting that not all those who received the Nobel Prize occupy a prominent place in the history of literature, without forgetting the typical Spanish envy, from which not even Juan Ramón Jiménez was spared, when it was said in a Madrid newspaper that it would have been better give the prize to the Platero donkey.

* Special columnist for La Mañana from Madrid


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The mathematician who received the Nobel Prize for Literature | The morning