Biography of Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer

Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer (1912-1967), by Antoni Malet

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Short biography

Born in Figueres (Girona) with a practically complete physical disability, Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer was confined for all his life to a wheelchair he could not move by himself, thus being constantly dependent on the care of others. His father died when Ferran was two years old, leaving his mother, missis Àngela Balaguer, alone with the heavy burden of nursing her son. They subsequently moved in with Ferrans maternal grandmother and his cousins Maria, Àngels, and Ferran’s. Later, this exemplary family which provided the environment of overflowing virtue in which our famous mathematician grew up, moved to Barcelona.

As the physician thought it advisable to keep the sickly boy away from all sorts of possible strain such as education and teachers, Ferran was left with the option to learn by himself or through his mother’s lessons which, by their spirit of love and understanding, were considered harmless for his health. Without doubt, this education was strongly influenced by living together with his cousins who were to him much more than cousins for all his life. After a period of intense reading, arousing a first interest in astronomy and physics, his passion for mathematics awoke and dominated his further life.

In 1938, he communicated his first results to Prof. J. Hadamard of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, who published one of his papers in the Academy’s “Comptes Rendus” and encouraged him to proceed in his selected course of investigation. From this moment, Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer maintained a constant interchange with the French analytical school, in particular with Szolem Mandelbrojt and his students, and his results were published regularly.

Ferran’s physical handicap did not allow him to write down any of his papers by himself. He dictated them to his mother until her death in 1955, and when, after a period of grief and desperation, he resumed research with new vigor, his cousins took care of the writing. His working power, paired with exceptional talents, produced a number of results which were eventually recognized for their high scientific value and for which he was awarded various prizes: Prize Agell, by the Acadèmia de Ciències i Arts de Barcelona (1948); Prize Prat de la Riba, by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (1949), Prize by the Academia de Ciencias de Zaragoza (1950), two prizes “Torres Quevedo” and “Francisco Franco” (1956) by the Consell Superior de Investigacions Científiques; Prize by the Academia de Ciencias de Madrid, and Prize Martí d’Ardenya, by the Instiutut d’Estudis Catalans (1966).

Despite all honour it was much more difficult to reach the social and profesional position corresponding to his scientific achievements. At times, his economical situation was not the most comfortable either. It wasn’t until the 9th of December 1967, 18 days prior to his death, that his confirmation as a scientific member was made public by the División of Mathematical, Medical and Nature Sciences of the Council.

Due to his physical constraints, the academic degrees for his official studies were granted rather belatedly. By the time he was given the Bachelor degree, he had already been honoured by several academies. In 1960 he finished his Masters degree and was given the doctorate after the requisite period of two years as a student. Although he was a part-time employee of the Mathematical Seminar since 1948, he was not allowed to become a full member of the scientific staff until 1962. This despite his actually heading the department rather than just being a staff member.

His own papers regularly appeared in the journals of the Barcelona Seminar, Collectanea Mathematica, to which he was also an eminent reviewer and advisor. On several occasions, he was consulted by the Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society as an advisor. He always participated and supported guest lectures in Barcelona, many of them having been prepared or promoted by him. On the occasion of a conference in 1966, H. Mascart of Toulouse publicly pronounced his feeling honoured by the presence of M. Sunyer i Balaguer, “the first, by far, of Spanish mathematicians”.

At all times, Sunyer i Balaguer felt a strong attachment to the scientific activities of his country and modestly accepted the limitations resulting from this attitude, resisting several calls from abroad, in particular from France and some institutions in the USA. In 1963 he was contracted by the US Navy, and in the following years he earned much respect for the results of his investigations. “His value to the prestige of the Spanish scientific community was outstanding and his work in mahtematics of a steady excellence that makes his loss difficult to accept” (letter of condolence from T.B. Owen, Rear Admiral of the US Navy).

The circunstances under which Sunyer attained his scientific achievements, also testify to his remarkable human qualities. Indeed, his manner was friendly and his way of conversation reflected his gift for friendship as well as his enjoyment of life and work far beyond a mere acceptance of the situation into which he had been born. His opinions were as firm as cautious, and at the same time he had a deep respect for the opinion and work of others. Though modest by nature, he achieved due credit for his work, but his petitions were free of any trace of exageration or over-esteem. The most surprising of his qualities was, above all, the absolute lack of preoccupation or complex with regard to his physical condition, which can certainly be ascribed to a great extent to the sensible education given by his mother and indicative of the integration of disabled into our society.

On December 27, 1967, still fully active, Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer unexpectedly passed away. The memory of his remarkable personality is a constant source of stimulation for our own efforts.

Abstracted and translated from “Fernando Sunyer Balaguer (1912-1967)”, by Juan Augé. Gaceta Matemàtica, 1. series, volume XX, numbers 3 and 4, pages 3-7.