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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Behrend, Felix Adalbert (1911–1962)

by J. J. Cross

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Felix Adalbert Behrend (1911-1962), mathematician, was born on 23 April 1911 at Charlottenburg, Berlin, eldest of four children of Felix Wilhelm Behrend, schoolteacher, and his wife Maria Sophie, née Zöllner; although Lutheran, the family had Jewish ancestry. Educated at the Herderschule from 1917, young Felix graduated with distinction in 1929 and spent the next four years studying mathematics, physics and philosophy at the University of Berlin (Ph.D., 1933).

Leaving Nazi Germany for England, Behrend went to the University of Cambridge where he worked for eighteen months with the number theorists Harold Davenport and G. H. Hardy. In June 1935 he was employed by a life-insurance company at Zurich, Switzerland, and in October was sent to its branch in Prague. He had decided to settle there when the political events of 1938-39 made his appointment as Privatdozent at the Charles University of Prague (Sc.D., 1938) impossible, obliging him to return to Switzerland and then to England.

Arrested as an 'enemy alien' in 1940, Behrend was transported to Australia in the Dunera and interned at Hay and at Orange, New South Wales, and at Tatura, Victoria. Until the end of 1941 he continued to instruct his fellow internees in a scientific programme that covered late-secondary and early-tertiary mathematics, physics, chemistry and medicine. He taught ordinary differential equations, elementary and advanced vector analysis, projective and differential geometry, complex analysis, and differential and integral calculus.

Acting on advice from the Royal Society, London, the British Home Office authorized Behrend's release from internment. In 1942 he was appointed tutor in the mathematics department at the University of Melbourne. On 26 May 1945 in the chapel of Queen's College he married with Methodist forms Daisy Helen Pirnitzer, an Hungarian-born teacher of dancing. He was naturalized that year. Promoted lecturer (1943), senior lecturer (1948) and associate professor (1954), he published sixteen of his twenty-five mathematical papers while in Australia. He worked on the distribution of prime numbers, using Lejeune Dirichlet's series, and on analysis, geometry (the ellipses bounding a given convex set within and without), algebraic equations, the foundations of mathematics and axiomatics. Most of his papers were short, only one exceeding twenty pages. He introduced modern general topology to the university and was an outstanding teacher. Modest, with a dry sense of humour and a warm nature, he had personal and professional integrity; he examined students' work with clear eyes after setting questions that were penetrating but fair.

Influenced when young by the writing of Thomas Mann, Behrend wrote essays and short stories in German and in English. His children's book, Ulysses' Father (1962), was published posthumously. He loved classical music and had sung bass in the Melbourne Philharmonic Society choir. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died of a cerebral tumour on 27 May 1962 in Epworth Hospital, Richmond, and was cremated. In 1963 the Behrend memorial lecture in mathematics was established at the University of Melbourne with funds provided by his widow.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Patkin, The Dunera Internees (Syd, 1979)
  • C. Pearl, The Dunera Scandal (Syd, 1983)
  • P. Bartrop, The Dunera Affair (Melb, 1990)
  • Australian Mathematical Society Journal, 4, 1964, p 264
  • Behrend papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

J. J. Cross, 'Behrend, Felix Adalbert (1911–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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