Image of computer code

Saunders Mac Lane

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

For revolutionizing the language and content of modern mathematics by his collaboration in the creation and development of the fields of homological algebra and category theory, for outstanding contributions to mathematics education, and for incisive leadership of the mathematical and scientific communities.

Like the mathematical theory that sustains his legacy, the origin of Saunders Mac Lane is a little complicated. Originally named Leslie Saunders MacLane when he was born in 1909 — Saunders being his mother’s maiden name — his parents dropped the name ‘Leslie’ after he was one month old. As for the family name, his Scottish ancestors switched from McLean to MacLane to sound less Irish after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1800s; Mac Lane’s wife Dorothy later added the space because she found it easier to type when working on his papers.

A lively professor with a jolly personality, Mac Lane took pleasure in writing comical rhymes about his colleagues and everyday life. But he also is responsible for knocking down the walls that separated individual fields of mathematics, building bridges between numeric-geometric worlds through what would eventually be called category theory. Working with Samuel Eilenberg, the two devised a language that translated formulas from one arena to another, which led to advancements in everything from computer programming to biology and music theory.

By Lauren Clason