David Pingree

David Edwin Pingree (January 2, 1933 - November 11, 2005), late University Professor and Professor of History of Mathematics and Classics at Brown University, was one of America's foremost historians of the exact sciences in antiquity. He had joined the History of Mathematics Department at Brown University in 1971, eventually holding the chair until his death on November 11, 2005. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut on January 2, 1933, graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts in 1950 and thereafter attended Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1960 with a dissertation on the transmission of Hellenistic astrology to India. His unique collection of material on the history of mathematics was acquired by Brown University.

Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, he was a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, the American Philosophical Society, and the Institute for Advanced Study; he was also A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University from 1995.

As successor to Otto Neugebauer (1899-1990) in Brown’s History of Mathematics Department (which Neugebauer established in 1947), Pingree numbered among his colleagues men of extraordinary learning, especially Abraham Sachs and Gerald Toomer.

Jon McGinnis of the University of Missouri, St. Louis describes Pingree’s life-work thus:

“…Pingree devoted himself to the study of the exact sciences, such as mathematics, mathematical astronomy and astral omens. He was also acutely interested in the transmission of those sciences across cultural and linguistic boundaries. His interest in the transmission of the exact sciences came from two fronts or, perhaps more correctly, his interest represents two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, he was concerned with how one culture might appropriate, and so alter, the science of another (earlier) culture in order to make that earlier scientific knowledge more accessible to the recipient culture. On the other hand, Pingree was also interested in how scientific texts surviving from a later culture might be used to reconstruct or cast light on our fragmentary records of earlier sciences. In this quest, Pingree would, with equal facility use ancient Greek works to clarify Babylonian texts on divination, turn to Arabic treatises to illuminate early Greek astronomical and astrological texts, seek Sanskrit texts to explain Arabic astronomy, or track the appearance of Indian astronomy in medieval Europe.”

Pingree's mastery of “dead” languages was perhaps unsurpassed in his generation, and students were awed and charmed by the depth of humanistic, mathematical, and scientific learning which he brought to bear (and expected of them) in his teaching. He is perhaps most renowned for his expertise in Jyotihshastra, the Indian science which encompasses astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and divination. He authored numerous book-chapters and articles, and some of his more important works include Babylonian Planetary Omens (with Erica Reiner: Brill, Leiden 2005), Census of the Exact Sciences in Sanskrit (5 vols., American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia 1970 et seq.), and Arabic Astronomy in Sanskrit: Al-Birjandī on Tadhkira II, Chapter 11 and its Sanskrit Translation (with Takanori Kusuba: Brill, Leiden 2002).

In June, 2007 the Brown University Library acquired Pingree's personal collection of scholarly materials. The collection focuses on the study of mathematics and exact sciences in the ancient world, especially India, and the relationship of Eastern mathematics to the development of mathematics and related disciplines in the West. The collection contains some 22,000 volumes, 700 fascicles, and a number of manuscripts. The holdings consist of both antiquarian and recent materials published in Sanskrit, Arabic, Hindi, and Western languages.

Sources and external links

  • Memorial by Kim Plofker and Bernard R. Goldstein in Aestimatio (
  • Memorial notice at (Mathematical Association of America)
  • Jon McGinnis, “Remembering David E. Pingree”,
  • Memorial by Toke Lindegaard Knudsen in the Bulletin of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics (pp. 5-6)
  • Death notice in the Brown Daily Herald
  • "An Indiana Jones of Mathematics" in the George Street Journal
  • A brief history of the History of Math Department at Brown University may be found at:
  • Information on the Pingree Collection may be found at:

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