This is the original letter by Fields creating the endowment for the medals that bear his name. It is thought to have been written during the few months before his death. Notice that no mention is made about the age of the recipients (currently there is a 40 year-old limit), and that the medal should not be attached to any person, private or public, meaning that it shouldn't bear anybody's name.
It is proposed to found two gold medals to be awarded at successive International Mathematical Congress for outstanding achievements in mathematics. Because of the multiplicity of the branches of mathematics and taking into account the fact that the interval between such congresses is four years it is felt that at least two medals should be available. The awards would be open to the whole world and would be made by an International Committee.
The fund for the founding of the medals is constituted by balance left over after financing the Toronto congress held in 1924. This must be held in trust by the Government or by some body authorized by government to hold and invest such funds. It would seem that a dignified method for handling the matter and one which in this changing world should most nearly secure permanency would be for the Canadian Government to take over the fund and appoint as his custodian say the Prime Minister of the Dominion or the Prime Minister in association with the Minister of Finance. The medals would be struck at the Mint in Ottawa and the duty of the custodian would be simply to hand over the medals at the proper time to the accredited International Committee.
As things are at present a practical course of procedure would seem to be for the Executive Committee of a Congress to appoint a small international committee authorized to add to its number and call into consultation other mathematicians as it might deem expedient. The Committee would be expected to decide on the ones to whom the awards should be made thirty months in advance of the following Congress. Its decisions would be communicated to the President and Secretary of the Organizing Committee of the Congress, this Committee having the duty of communicating to the Prime Minister of Canada the names of the recipients in order that the medal might be prepared in time and forwarded to the president of the Organizing Committee. Immediately on the appointment of the Executive Committee of the Congress the medals would be handed over to its President. The presentation of the medals would constitute a special feature at some general meeting of the Congress.
In the above arrangements the role of the Organizing Committee might be taken over by the Executive of the International Mathematical Union at some time in the future when that organization has been generally accepted.
In coming to its decision the hands of the IC should be left as free as possible. It would be understood, however, that in making the awards while it was in recognition of work already done it was at the same time intended to be an encouragement for further achievement on the part of the recipients and a stimulus to renewed effort on the part of others.
In commenting on the work of the medalists it might be well to be conservative in one's statements to avoid envidious comparisons explicit or implied. The Committee might ease matters by saying they have decided to make the awards along certain lines not alone because of the outstanding character of the achievement but also with a view to encouraging further development along these lines. In this connection the Committee might say that they had elected to select subjects in Analysis, in Geometry, in the Theory of Groups, in the Theory of Numbers etc. as the case might be. When the Committee had come to an agreement in this sense the claims for recognition of work done along the special lines in question could be considered in detail by two smaller groups or subcommittees with specialized qualifications who would have authority to take into consultation or add to the subcommittees other mathematicians of specialized knowledge.
With regard to the medals themselves, I might say that they should each contain at least 200 dollars worth of gold and be of a fair size, probably 7.5 centimeters in diameter. Because of the international character the language to be employed it would seem should be Latin or Greek? The design has still to be definitely determined. It will have to be decided on by artists in consultation with mathematicians. The suggestions made in the preceding are tentative and open to consideration on the part of mathematicians.
It is not contemplated to make an award until 1936 at the Congress following that at Zurich during which an international Medal Committee should be named.
The above programme means a new departure in the matter of international scientific cooperation and is likely to be the precursor of moves along like lines in other sciences than mathematics.
One would hear again emphasized the fact that the medals should be of a character as purely international and impersonal as possible. There should not be attached to them in any way the name of any country, institution or person.
Perhaps provision could be made as soon as possible after the appointment of the Executive of the Zurich Congress for the consideration by it of the subject of the medals, and the appointment without undue delay of a Committee and the awards of the medals to be made in connection with the Congress of 1936.
Suggestions with regard to the design of the medals will be welcome.
(signed) J.C. Fields Research Professor of Mathematics University of Toronto
More information may also be found at
Year Name Birthplace Country Age 1936 Ahlfors, Lars Helsinki Finland 29 1936 Douglas, Jesse New York, NY USA 39 1950 Schwartz, Laurent Paris France 35 1950 Selberg, Atle Langesund Norway 33 1954 Kodaira, Kunihiko Tokyo Japan 39 1954 Serre, Jean-Pierre Bages France 27 1958 Roth, Klaus Breslau Germany 32 1958 Thom, Rene Montbeliard France 35 1962 Hormander, Lars Mjallby Sweden 31 1962 Milnor, John Orange, NJ USA 31 1966 Atiyah, Michael London UK 37 1966 Cohen, Paul Long Branch NJ USA 32 1966 Grothendieck, Alexander Berlin Germany 38 1966 Smale, Stephen Flint, MI USA 36 1970 Baker, Alan London UK 31 1970 Hironaka, Heisuke Yamaguchi-ken Japan 39 1970 Novikov, Serge Gorki USSR 32 1970 Thompson, John Ottawa, KA USA 37 1974 Bombieri, Enrico Milan Italy 33 1974 Mumford, David Worth, Sussex UK 37 1978 Deligne, Pierre Brussels Belgium 33 1978 Fefferman, Charles Washington DC USA 29 1978 Margulis, Gregori Moscow USSR 32 1978 Quillen, Daniel Orange, NJ USA 38 1982 Connes, Alain Draguignan France 35 1982 Thurston, William Washington DC USA 35 1982 Yau, Shing-Tung Kwuntung Hong Kong 33 1986 Donaldson, Simon Cambridge UK 27 1986 Faltings, Gerd Germany 32 1986 Freedman, Michael Los Angeles USA 35 1990 Drinfeld, Vladimir Kharkov USSR 36 1990 Jones, Vaughan Gisborne N Zealand 38 1990 Mori, Shigefumi Nagoya Japan 39 1990 Witten, Edward Baltimore USA 38 1994 Pierre-Louis Lions ???? France 38 1994 Jean-Chrisophe Yoccoz ???? France 36 1994 Jean Bourgain ???? Belgium 40 1994 Efim Zelmanov ???? Russia 39 Year Name Institution Country 1936 Ahlfors, Lars Harvard University USA 1936 Douglas, Jesse MIT USA 1950 Schwartz, Laurent Universite de Nancy France 1950 Selberg, Atle Princeton/Inst. of Advanced Studies USA 1954 Kodaira, Kunihiko Princeton University USA 1954 Serre, Jean-Pierre College de France France 1958 Roth, Klaus University of London UK 1958 Thom, Rene University of Strasbourg France 1962 Hormander, Lars University of Stockholm Sweden 1962 Milnor, John Princeton University USA 1966 Atiyah, Michael Oxford University UK 1966 Cohen, Paul Stanford University USA 1966 Grothendieck, Alex University of Paris France 1966 Smale, Stephen University of California at Berkeley USA 1970 Baker, Alan Cambridge University UK 1970 Hironaka, Heisuke Harvard University USA 1970 Novikov, Serge Moscow University USSR 1970 Thompson, John University of Chicago USA 1974 Bombieri, Enrico Univeristy of Pisa Italy 1974 Mumford, David Harvard University USA 1978 Deligne, Pierre IHES France 1978 Fefferman, Charles Princeton University USA 1978 Margulis, Gregori InstPrblmInfTrans USSR 1978 Quillen, Daniel MIT USA 1982 Connes, Alain IHES France 1982 Thurston, William Princeton University USA 1982 Yau, Shing-Tung IAS USA 1986 Donaldson, Simon Oxford University UK 1986 Faltings, Gerd Princeton University USA 1986 Freedman, Michael University of California at San Diego USA 1990 Drinfeld, Vladimir Phys.Inst.Kharkov USSR 1990 Jones, Vaughan University of California at Berkeley USA 1990 Mori, Shigefumi University of Kyoto? Japan 1990 Witten, Edward Princeton/Institute of Advanced Studies USA 1994 Pierre-Louis Lions Universite de Paris-Dauphine France 1994 Jean-Chrisophe Yoccoz Universite de Paris-Sud France 1994 Jean Bourgain Princeton/Inst.for Advanced Study USA 1994 Efim Zelmanov University of Wisconsin USA
International Mathematical Congresses, An Illustrated History 1893-1986. Donald J.Alberts, G. L. Alexanderson and Constance Reid. Revised Edition, Including 1986, Springer Verlag, 1987.
Tropp, Henry S. The origins and history of the Fields Medal. Historia Mathematica, 3(1976), 167-181.