Israel Moiseevich Gelfand was born on September 2, 1913 in a small town Krasnye Okny, in Ukraine.
He attended primary school there but did not have a chance to complete his secondary education.
Gelfand recalled that he had a very good teacher in mathematics at school. This teacher was very encouraging and kind to students. He considered Israel to be "the best student at school" - ("naikrazshiy uchnik u shkoli"-- in Ukrainian language). In class, Israel was able to solve all math problems. He said that at some point the teacher knew that there was not much more Israel could learn from the school math curriculum and he encouraged Israel to continue studying elsewhere. Israel had very warm and respectful feelings about this "man with the big Ukrainian mustache".
Afterwards, for about two years Gelfand studied at the so called professional-technical school. However, he was expelled because his father operated a wind-mill with one other worker and was considered a "non-working element" (a capitalist).
At the age of 16, in 1930, Gelfand went to Moscow where he lived with his relatives and spent his time either unemployed or working at odd jobs. At one of these jobs he was a door-keeper at the Lenin Library. There he got the chance to read mathematical books and work on mathematical problems. (read what Gelfand said about this in his own words, in the Quantum interview.)
Israel recalled that once, while working at the Lenin Library, he was reading an advanced math textbook and caught the attention of a math professor from Moscow State University (MSU). This professor gave him several mathematical problems to solve. The next time the professor came to the Lenin Library, Gelfand showed him his solutions. The professor was very surprised. It turned out that one of the problems that he gave to Gelfand was a problem that was not yet solved. The professor invited Gelfand to attend lectures at MSU. This professor was A.N. Kolmogorov.
From 1931, Gelfand attended evening lectures at Moscow State University and at other colleges. He was also accepted to work as a substitute teacher at the Evening Institute of Chemical Technology.
At this job Gelfand had to teach a class on a specific night whenever one of the regular math teachers could not. He never knew until the last minute what subject and whom he would be teaching. He said that this was a great experience for him to learn how to teach. Moreover, most of the students were much older than he was (sometimes twice his age) and were part-time students who took classes after work.
In 1932, Gelfand became a graduate student of Andrei Kolmogorov. He also started teaching at Moscow State University as an Assistant Professor at the Mathematics Department (1932—1935).
In 1935, Gelfand defended his Ph.D. thesis at MSU. He was able to do so without a college education and without completing high school. In 1940, Gelfand had became a Doctor of Science at MSU.
Gelfand worked as an Associate Professor at MSU (1935—1940).
Starting in 1939, Gelfand also worked at the Mathematical Institute of Academy of Sciences, USSR.
In 1941, Gelfand became a full Professor at MSU. He held this position for the next 50 years until he moved to the US in 1990.
In 1943, Gelfand organized a mathematical seminar at Moscow State University. The seminar took place every Monday until Gelfand went to the US in 1990 and became known world-wide as "Gelfand’s mathematical seminar".
From 1953, he was Head of the Department at the Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Academy of Sciences
Since 1958, along with mathematics, Gelfand became interested in biology and medicine. And together with M.L. Tsetlin, Gelfand organized a mathematical-physiological seminar.
In 1961, Gelfand and the Director of the Institute of Biophysics. G.M. Frank organized this interdisciplinary department on the base of Gelfand's seminar. Later, in 1976, this department became known as The Laboratory of Mathematical Methods in Biology at the Research Institute of physical-chemical biology (named by A.N. Belozersky at MSU).
Around 1960-1961, Gelfand started a biological seminar which brought together physiologists, cell biologists, biochemists and biologists of other specialties.
From 1989 to 1990, Gelfand was a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and at MIT.
Since October 1990, he lived in the US. He lived in New Jersey, and worked as a Distinguished Professor at the Department of Mathematics at Rutgers University, in Piscataway.
During his scientific life and work, Gelfand made outstanding achievements for which he received numerous awards and honors, and was elected as a member of many Academies all over the world. His world-wide impact also includes extensive work in the field of education.
Gelfand married Zorya Yakovlevna Shapiro in 1942. Following a divorce with Zorya, he married Tatiana V. Alekseyevskaya in 1979. He had two sons, Sergei and Vladimir from his first marriage and a daughter Tatiana from his second marriage.
Gelfand passed away at the age of 96 on October 5, 2009 in the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.
If you would like to contribute any memories on the biographical stories shared with you directly by Israel Gelfand, please, contact us.
See also wikipedia in Russian www.ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Гельфанд Израиль Моисеевич