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Mathematician Michael Fell's Icelandic Library

The following article is submitted by the children of Michael and Daphne Fell: Peter Fell and Rachel Fell McDermott. They have made a significant donation to the Icelandic Roots Library of 29 boxes of Icelandic books in pristine condition.


Michael Fell was the son of an American mother and a British father.  During his teenage years, he was educated in the traditional way in England with exposure to Latin and Greek, before returning to his home in Vancouver during the war.  But his involvement with languages was not to stop there.  As a young professor of mathematics at the University of Washington in the 1950s, he became deeply involved in studying Russian.  I still remember with shock, after a school play circa 1975, watching my father and our school's Russian teacher carrying on a conversation fluently in Russian.  By then, however, our father had developed an interest in Sanskrit and in fact spent a good deal of his time at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had moved in the 1960s, working with a professor on the translation of a medieval Sanskrit philosophical work which had never been translated before.  

It was in 1980, when they were both 57 years old, that our parents first visited Iceland. They had no Icelandic ancestry, and no particular reason to go, except that our father had always been fascinated from his youngest days by Iceland and its sagas.  Our mother, being British, loved going to places with a cold (and rainy) climate.

Our parents continued to visit Iceland almost without break every year for the next 31 years.  Our father transferred all of his linguistic interests to Icelandic, which after some time he read fluently and spoke almost flawlessly.  He became especially focused on Icelandic Lutheranism and made many good friends over the years through that connection.  

The then-recently retired Bishop of Iceland, Sigurbjörn Einarsson, encouraged our father's interest in translating various previously untranslated Icelandic works into English, and kindly consented to write a forward to one of his books.  Our father was very much assisted by scholars of the medieval Icelandic language, religion, and culture, both in Iceland and in the US.  Dr. Margrét Eggertsdóttir of the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland was very helpful to our father and kindly consented to write the forward to our father's last book, completed two years before his death.

In the end, our father published five books: a translation of selected sermons by Jón Thorkelsson Vídalín, best known for his Húss-Postilla (“Sermons for the Home”, 1718–20) (1998); a history of Christianity in Iceland (1999); a translation of the autobiography of Jón Steingrímsson, the "fire priest"; who experienced first-hand and documented the Lakagigar eruption (1783-1784) which devastated the Icelandic economy (2002); a translation of the Píslarsaga, a 17th-century autobiography of Jón Magnússon, who described the era of witch trials in Iceland (2007); and finally a translation of the passion hymns of Hallgrímur Pétursson, the great 17th-century Icelandic poet (2014).  All but one of the books were published by Peter Lang Publishing, New York.  Our father began working on these translations in earnest around the time of his retirement as a mathematician in 1991.  They became the primary focus of his life for the next 25

years.  In the year 2000, our father was awarded an honorary doctorate in theology by the University of Iceland.

In the process of his three decades as an Icelandic scholar, our father accumulated many books in Icelandic.  Just prior to his death in 2016, our father wondered out loud what would become of his library.  With the passing of our mother in May of this year and the need to vacate our parents' apartment, our father's question came squarely into view.  After finding little interest in the books from various universities, we came across Icelandic Roots, and in particular, the blog written by Sunna about a book donation by Dr. George Hanson, "Lifelong Love of Books", who, coincidentally, had kindly translated Bishop Sigurbjörn's Icelandic forward into English for our father's fourth book.  

We contacted Sunna who responded that Icelandic Roots would gladly take our father's books. "If no one else wants them, don't throw them out. We will be happy to preserve them together," she said.  Sunna also asked for a photograph of our father and a write-up about his involvement with Iceland.  

The photograph above was taken by our parents' dear friends Pastor Friðrik Schram and his wife Vilborg, shows our parents in Borgarfjarðarsýsla (Skorradalur) on the southern side of Skorradalsvatn by the entrance to a summer house property called Fell, bearing no connection otherwise to our parents.  The photo dates from 2007.  Our father was never happier than in Iceland.

We want to express our sincere gratitude to Icelandic Roots for so kindly accepting all of our father's books.  It seems like a miracle that such a welcoming home was found for his beloved collection.   

Peter Fell

Rachel Fell McDermott


Here is an article in Icelandic about the Víðalínspostillu:

James Michael Gardner Fell (4 Dec 1923 in Vancouver, British Columbia – 16 Dec 2016 in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania) was a Canadian-American mathematician, specializing in functional analysis and representation theory. He is known for Fell bundles (algebraic bundles) and accomplished much in his life.

The IR librarians are working on cataloging the growing Icelandic Roots Library. Many thanks to Peter and Rachel for their donation and for preserving their father's Icelandic Library.

Here is a photo of Sunna's grandchildren helping to unpack the wonderful Michael Fell Library donation to Icelandic Roots.

To make a donation or ask any questions about the Icelandic Roots Library, Contact Us.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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