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The concept of a Mathematics Department as we know it today – a group of professors and lecturers actively engaged, as a fully-fledged, independent entity within the Faculty of Science, in research and teaching a wide variety of Mathematics courses at all levels, undergraduate and postgraduate – is only a thing of the very recent past. It, however, evolved and attained the present format having developed steadily, and at times falteringly, over centuries from much more humble beginnings rooted in the Jesuit Collegium Melitense where the discipline was thought of, rather, as a ‘slave and servant of the practical sciences’.

It is thanks to the Knights’ settlement in these islands in 1530 that the need to study this science was felt with urgency in order to lay solid foundations for such practical pursuits as architecture and artillery. Riding on the back of this powerful swell, already in the sixteenth century, local names began to surface showing promising interest and even publishing in the field. Suffice it to mention Joannes Myriti, born in Malta in 1534, who proceeded to Freiburg to further his studies, a Gozitan called Antonio Saliba who published two works of an astronomical nature, and extremely competent architects like the dynasty of Girolamo Cassar whose works can still be admired today.

The foundation of the Collegium Melitense in 1592 created the proper setting for formal training in a variety of disciplines. Mathematics certainly benefited not only from the presence of renowned Jesuit mathematicians of the calibre of the German Athanasius Kircher who was in Malta, albeit briefly, in 1637, but especially after 1655 when, in compliance with Grandmaster Lascaris’ wish, the college established a class of Mathematics to be funded from the proceeds of a croquet-like game, called il maglio, played by the knights in the Floriana Mall (whence the name). Thanks to this brilliant idea the college benefited for more than a century from capable lecturing Jesuits from the Sicilian Province, including P. Giacomo Masò, who published important text-books on the application of Mathematics to artillery, P. Vincenzo Alias who dedicated himself to the teaching of the subject for full eighteen years, and P. Angelo Aguillera whose clear lecture-notes are still extant in our National Library.

With the general suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1768 and, even before that, the expulsion of the Jesuits from Malta, Grandmaster Pinto took over their institution and converted it into the Università degli Studi of his dreams. The first rector, Costaguti, a mathematician of some repute, drew up the first statutes for the 8-year full University course, divided into two parts: the first three years leading to the degree of Master of Arts in subjects common to all three faculties of Theology, Jurisprudence and Medicine, whereas the last five were dedicated to these three traditionally professional courses; this basic structure survived till the very recent past.

Among the foremost Maltese exponents of Mathematics and the sciences at this time we find Dr Giuseppe De Marco of Cospicua, an old boy of the Jesuit College who trained in Pinto’s Università, and Giuseppe Zahra, who got politically embroiled in the so-called ‘Insurrection of the Priests’, slipped out of the island to Naples where he concluded his medical training, whence he headed for St Petersburg. Here he very likely came in contact with Euler himself then, by way of Paris and Messina, he ended up in Catania as incumbent of the Chair of Geometry. He earned for himself the compliment of being il più valido matematico che fosse in Sicilia; he now graces our Computer Building with his name.

In its turn, the Order found itself ousted from these islands in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte during whose brief interlude, before he himself was kicked out, much was promised to the teaching of Mathematics and the sciences but none was delivered. Under the British, who had come to stay, the University was revived under the rectorship of Canon Francesco Saverio Caruana of Żebbuġ, yet another mathematician of no mean achievement for his time. Caruana resigned in 1822 and, by 1833, separate Faculty Boards for the various professions began to be convened. At this time, the student population totalled 300, of whom 65 attended the Arithmetic class.

The second half of that century, however, was characterized by a period of stagnation and it is to the credit of Sigismondo Savona that he revamped the institution towards the end of the century when the sciences reappeared. The Rector Annetto A. Caruana resigned in 1896 as he could not handle the warring factions within the University, to be replaced by Napoleon Tagliaferro who came armed with a new statute. Tagliaferro was an outstanding academic who contributed to several branches of learning, including Mathematics, Archaeology, the Natural Sciences and the Maltese Language. He studied at the Sorbonne and his publications include a paper on the then topical Transcendental Functions (1879). One of his early achievements at the University was to subdivide the Faculty of Arts, till then known as the Faculty of Literature and Science, into two separate areas of study: the Arts and the Sciences, which included Engineering, Architecture and Pharmacy.

The split into three faculties of Arts, Science, Engineering and Architecture belongs to the next rectorship of Edoardo Magro (1904-1920), during whose term of office the number of faculties was further increased to six, one of which was the Faculty of Science; the first sitting of the Faculty Board of Science, as we know it today was held on 17 September 1915. The Rector was in the chair and there were three members in attendance: Professor W.F. Nixon B.Sc., Arc.Sc. (Professor of Mathematics) and two others, both future Rectores Magnifici of the University, Professor Roberto V. Galea L.S.&A. and Professor Themistocles Zammit C.M.G., M.D. (Professor of Chemistry), who were elected at that first meeting to represent the Science Faculty on Council. The other decision taken at the meeting concerned Mathematics: henceforth there were to be two Mathematics exam papers, instead of the one as till then, in each of (a) the academic course of science, (b) the preparatory course of medicine, and (c) the preparatory course of engineering.

Mathematics continued to be taught in this manner, not for its own sake, but as a major tool for the professions and as part of a Bachelor’s Degree in Science. According to the statute of 1937, this 3-year B.Sc.(Gen.) degree in Science included ‘Mathematics’ as one of four first-year topics (the others being Literature, Practical Plane Geometry and Drawing, and Mensuration), and one of five topics in the third year, covering Coordinate Geometry, Spherical Trigonometry, and Elements of Calculus. These topics were covered by students intending to join the course in Engineering and Architecture. During this time, the Chair of Mathematics was held by Professor Appleby who had succeeded Professor Nixon in 1936.

The major leap forward coincides with the return to Malta in 1949 of Professor Edwin J. Borg Costanzi, who had graduated First Class from Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Professor Borg Costanzi held the Chair of Mathematics between 1949 and 1963 when he became Rector Magnificus of the University. The University Statute for 1965-66 provided for the following courses in the Faculty of Science: (i) a 2-year Preliminary Course in four topics, one of which was Mathematics, (ii) a 4-year B.Sc. Course consisting of two parts, each of two years’ duration, and (iii) an M.Sc. degree that could be taken in any of the subjects Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology.

These notable achievements were not enjoyed for very long as the ‘reforms’ of 1975-76 obliterated the Faculties of Arts and of Science so that any ‘Higher Mathematics’ taught was what could be included in the B.Ed. and Engineering courses which were made to labour under the ‘six months work’ / ‘six months study’ regime of the so-called ‘Student-Worker’ system. As a consequence, the Faculty of Science as a whole, and the Department of Mathematics in particular, suffered a debilitating brain-drain which took decades to set right again. In the early 1980s, what members of staff remained on the island endeavoured, as best they could, to keep the flame flickering by offering evening courses with such strange titles as ‘Mathematics, Computing and Logic’ to accommodate existing regulations and avoid stepping on sore toes.

The present structure dates from the late eighties when, as a result of the Education Act of 1988, the University of Malta was refounded as an autonomous institution.

Professor Emeritus Stanley Fiorini


Last Updated: 27 October 2009

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