Nicolas Rashevsky

Nicolas Rashevsky
Born (1899-11-09)November 9, 1899
Chernigov, Russian Empire
Died January 16, 1972(1972-01-16) (aged 72)
Holland-Michigan, United States
Residence United States
Nationality Russian American
Fields Theoretical physics, Mathematical biology
Institutions University of Chicago, University of Michigan
Alma mater Kiev University, University of Chicago
Notable students George Karreman, Robert Rosen, Clyde Coombs, Anatol Rapoport, Herbert A. Simon

Nicolas Rashevsky (November 9, 1899 – January 16, 1972) was an American theoretical physicist who pioneered mathematical biology, and is also considered the father of mathematical biophysics and theoretical biology.[1][2][3][4][5]

Academic career

He studied theoretical physics at the University of Kiev in Ukraine (then Russian Empire) before 1917, and immigrated first to Turkey, then to Poland, France, and finally to the US in 1924 because of the October revolution.

In USA he worked at first for the Westinghouse Research Labs in Pittsburgh where he focused on the theoretical physics modeling of the cell division and the mathematics of cell fission, a subject that was anecdotally said to have attracted fission-related defense interests.

He was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1934 and went to the University of Chicago to take up the appointment of assistant professor in the Department of Physiology. In 1938 he made his first major contribution by publishing the first book on Mathematical Biophysics, and then in 1939 he also founded the first mathematical biology international journal entitled The Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics (BMB); these two essential contributions founded the field of mathematical biology, with the BMB journal serving as the focus of contributing mathematical biologists over the last 70 years.

Major scientific contributions

In 1938 he published the first book on mathematical biology and mathematical biophysics entitled: "Mathematical Biophysics: Physico-Mathematical Foundations of Biology." This fundamental book was eventually published in three revised editions, the last revision appearing in two volumes in 1960. It was followed in 1940 by "Advances and applications of mathematical biology.", and in 1947 by "Mathematical theory of human relations", an approach to a mathematical model of society. In the same year he established the World' s first PhD program in Mathematical Biology at the University of Chicago.

In the early 1930s, Rashevsky developed the first model of neural networks. This was paraphrased in a Boolean context by his student Walter Pitts together with Warren McCulloch, in an article published in Rashevsky's Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics in 1943.[6] The Pitts-McCulloch article subsequently became extremely influential for research on artificial intelligence and artificial neural networks.[7]

His later efforts focused on the topology of biological systems, the formulation of fundamental principles in biology, relational biology, set theory and propositional logic formulation of the hierarchical organization of organisms and human societies.[8][9] In the second half of the 1960s, he introduced the concept of "organismic sets" that provided a unified framework for physics, biology and sociology. This was subsequently developed by other authors[10] through applications of category theory to relational biology ,[11] organismic supercategories and Complex Systems Biology.[12]

Rashevsky's most notable students

Some of Rashevsky's most outstanding PhD students who earned their doctorate under his supervision were: George Karreman, Herbert Daniel Landahl, Clyde Coombs, Robert Rosen and Anatol Rapoport. In 1948, Anatol Rapoport took over Rashevsky's course in mathematical biology, so that Rashevsky could teach mathematical sociology instead.

Administrative and political obstacles

However, his more advanced ideas and abstract relational biology concepts found little support in the beginning amongst practicing experimental or molecular biologists, although current developments in complex systems biology clearly follow in his footsteps.

In 1954 the budget for his Committee of Mathematical Biology was drastically cut; however, this was at least in part politically imposed, rather than scientifically, motivated. Thus, the subsequent University of Chicago administration—notably represented by the genetics Nobel laureate George Wells Beadle— who reversed in the 1960s the previous position and quadrupled the financial support for Rashevsky's Committee for Mathematical Biology research activities ("Reminiscences of Nicolas Rashevsky." by Robert Rosen, written in late 1972).

There was later however a fall out between the retiring Nicolas Rashevsky and the University of Chicago president over the successor to the Chair of the Committee of Mathematical Biology; Nicolas Rashevsky strongly supported Dr. Herbert Landahl-his first PhD student to graduate in Mathematical Biophysics, whereas the president wished to appoint a certain US biostatistician. The result was Rashevsky's move to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and his taking ownership of the well-funded "Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics".

Formation of Mathematical Biology, Inc.

He also formed in 1969 a non-profit organization, "Mathematical Biology, Incorporated", which was to be the precursor of "The Society for Mathematical Biology", with the purpose of "dissemination of information regarding Mathematical Biology".

In his later years, after 1968, he became again very active in relational biology and held, as well as Chaired, in 1970 the first international "Symposium of Mathematical Biology" at Toledo, Ohio, in USA with the help of his former PhD student, Dr. Anthony Bartholomay, who has become the Chairman of the first Department of Mathematical Medicine at Ohio University. The meeting was sponsored by Mathematical Biology, Inc.

Final quest for principles of biology

Rashevsky was greatly influenced and inspired both by Herbert Spencer's book on the Principles of Biology (1898), and also by J. H. Woodger `axiomatic (Mendelian) genetics', to launch his own search and quest for biological principles, and also to formulate mathematically precise principles and axioms of biology. He then developed his own highly original approach to address the fundamental question of What is Life? that another theoretical physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, had asked before him from the narrower viewpoint of quantum theory in biology.

He wished to reach this `holy grail' of (theoretical/ mathematical) biology, but his heavy work load during the late 1960s—despite his related health problems—took its toll, and finally prevented him in 1972 from reaching his ultimate goal. Rashevsky's relational approach represents a radical departure from reductionistic approaches, and it has greatly influenced the work of his student Robert Rosen.


In 1917, Nicolas Rashevsky joins the White Russian Navy and in 1920 he and his wife, Countess Emily had to flee for their lives to Constantinople where he taught at the American College. In 1921 they moved to Prague where he taught both special and general relativity.

From Prague, he moved in the 1930s to Paris, France, and then to New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago, USA. His life has been dedicated to the science that he founded, Mathematical Biology, and his wife Emily was very supportive and appreciative of his scientific efforts, accompanying him at the scientific meetings that he either initiated or attended.

He cut a tall, impressive figure with a slight Russian accent, but a clear voice and thought to the very day when in 1972 he died from a heart attack caused by coronary heart disease. His generosity was very well known and is often recognized in print by former associates or visitors. As the Chief Editor of BMB he had a declared policy of helping the authors to optimize their presentation of submitted papers, as well as proving many valuable suggestions to the submitting authors.

His suggested detailed changes, additions and further developments were like a real `gold mine' for the submitting authors. He managed to stay aloof of all science `politics' most of the time, even in very adverse circumstances such as those during the McCarthy era when completely unfounded political accusations were made about one or two members of his close research group. Not unlike another American theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer, he then had much to lose for his loyal support of the wrongly accused researcher in his group.


Notes and references

This article incorporates material from Nicolas Rashevsky on PlanetMath, which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License. The article also incorporates additional data from; furthermore, both external entries are original, contributed objects in the public domain.

  1. A Brief History of Mathematical Biology
  2. Nicolas Rashevky's Biography
  3. The Society for Mathematical Biology
  4. Robert Rosen Essays on Life (2004)
  5. Evelyn Fox Keller Making Sense of Life pp. 82-89
  6. McCulloch, W.S., and W. Pitts (1943) A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity. Bull. Math. Biophys. 5, 115-133.
  7. Rosen, Robert (2000) Essays on Life Itself. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 120-1.
  8. Nicolas Rashevsk's biography
  10. Planet Math page
  11. Abstract Relational Biology and Category Theory Representations of Functional Organisms and Societies
  12. Organismic Supercategories and Complex Systems Biology

Further reading

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