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Topic: Gen'l Interest: History / U of Chicago Maths Dept.
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Gen'l Interest: History / U of Chicago Maths Dept.
Posted: Sep 23, 2013 7:24 PM
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From the Department of Mathematics website,
University of Chicago. See
NEWS EVENT: We are happy to announce that this
year, the department is recognizing the graduate
students Andrew Lawrie (finishing) and Alex
Wright as Wirszup fellows. The Wirszup fellowship
was established last year in memory of Izaak
Wirszup, a beloved member of our department and
of the university community for many years, who
had worked tirelessly towards improving the
quality of Mathematics Education over the decades.

The University of Chicago, and with it the
Department of Mathematics, opened its doors in
October of 1892. The first chair of the
department was Eliakim Hastings Moore, who had
been an associate professor at Northwestern. He
immediately appointed Oskar Bolza and Heinrich
Maschke, and the three of them became the core of
the department during the period 1892-1908. R.C.
Archibald has described this group as follows:

These three men supplemented one another
remarkably. Moore was a fiery enthusiast,
brilliant, and keenly interested in the popular
mathematical research movements of the day;
Bolza, a product of the meticulous German school
of analysis led by Weierstrass, was an able, and
widely read research scholar; Maschke was more
deliberate than the other two, sagacious,
brilliant in research, and a most delightful
lecturer in geometry. During the period 1892-1908
the University of Chicago was unsurpassed in
America as an institution for the study of higher

One of the first projects undertaken by the newly
formed department was the organization of an
international congress of mathematicians in
association with the World Fair held in Chicago
in 1893. The success of this venture is indicated
by the fact that it has inspired the organization
of International Congresses of Mathematicians on
a regular basis. The publication of the
proceedings of this congress was undertaken with
the help of the New York Mathematical Society,
and shortly thereafter, with Moore's strong
encouragement, it was concluded that the Society
should be reorganized as the American
Mathematical Society.

From 1892 to 1910, 39 students graduated from
Chicago with doctoral degrees in mathematics.
This group included such mathematicians as
Leonard Dickson (Chicago's first Ph.D. in
mathematics), Gilbert Bliss, Oswald Veblen, R.L.
Moore, George D. Birkhoff and T.H. Hildebrandt.
There was a shift in the character of the
department beginning in 1908, when Maschke died,
and this was accentuated in 1910 when Bolza
returned to Germany. Along with Moore, the most
influential members of the department became L.E.
Dickson, G.A. Bliss and Ernst Wilczynski. The
pace at which doctorates were granted
accelerated: in 1910-1927, 115 Ph.D.s were
granted. By the end of this period, Chicago had
become a dominant source of mathematical Ph.D.s
in the United States: in 1928, 45 Ph.D.s in
mathematics were granted in the United States,
and either 12 (according to the Bulletin of the
AMS) or 14 (according to department records) of
these were from Chicago. The nearest competitors
in that year were Minnesota (with four) and
Cornell and Johns Hopkins (three each). By virtue
of sheer numbers, Chicago became a dominant force
on the American mathematical scene, providing
faculty for many departments in the nation. On
the other hand, it is generally agreed that none
of the graduate students in this period reached
the same level of mathematical profundity as the
best students in the earlier one. Saunders Mac
Lane's sober assessment: "Chicago had become in
part a Ph.D mill in mathematics."

In 1927, Gilbert Bliss succeeded Moore as chair
of the department. He and Dickson were the
dominant mathematical influences on the
department during Bliss' chairmanship, which
lasted until 1941. Together, they directed nearly
70 of the 117 theses written during this period.
There was somewhat more success in producing
mathematicians of depth in this period: Adrian
Albert graduated in 1928, W.L. Duren in 1929, E.J
MacShane in 1930 and Leon Alaoglu in 1938. Mac
Lane (who was a student at Chicago during this
period, though he soon left for Göttingen, with
E.H. Moore's encouragement) makes this
assessment: "In this period the department at
Chicago trained a few outstanding research
mathematicians and a number of effective members
of this community - plus produced a large number
of essentially routine theses."

Up until this point, it had been a pattern at
Chicago to appoint Chicago Ph.D.s to the faculty.
This predictably led to a certain narrowness of
mathematical focus: the calculus of variations,
projective differential geometry, algebra and
number theory were the main topics of interest.
During the latter part of Bliss' chairmanship,
there were some efforts to appoint mathematicians
in new fields and not from Chicago. Two of these
included Saunders Mac Lane and Norman Steenrod,
though both left after a few years.

Bliss retired in 1941, and was succeeded as chair
by E.P. Lane. Lane's attempts to revive the
department were largely unsuccessful, due
primarily to the onset of World War II. President
Robert Hutchins brought the Manhattan Project to
the University of Chicago, and was housed in
Eckhart Hall, while the mathematicians were moved
into one of the towers of Harper Library. There
were no new appointments until after the war;
Irving Kaplansky was the first in 1945. There
were however, some notable graduate students
during the war, including George Whitehead in

At the conclusion of the war, Hutchins made an
effort to retain some of the scientists who had
come to campus as part of the Manhattan Project;
a consequence of this was a need to strengthen
the mathematics department. A professor at
Harvard, Marshall Stone, was approached and asked
if he would come to Chicago as chair. There were
at the time five vacant senior positions which
had accumulated during the war, which meant that
the department had to be rebuilt almost
completely, and there was a wish to match the
level of appointments in the physical sciences
which the university had been able to make
through its involvement in the Manhattan Project.

Stone brought a considerable degree of ambition
and vision to the project of rebuilding the
department. The list of mathematicians appointed
at Chicago through Stone's efforts is remarkable:
André Weil, Antoni Zygmund, Saunders Mac Lane and
Shiing-Shen Chern as professors, and Paul Halmos,
Irving Segal and Edwin Spanier as assistant
professors. Other appointments were attempted,
but unsuccessful. The first offer Stone made was
to Hassler Whitney. Stone's recommendation to
appoint Whitney was initially rejected by the
administration, and it required considerable
effort to reverse this decision. When the offer
was finally made, Whitney turned it down, and
shortly later moved to the Institute for Advanced
Study. In another case, an attempt was made to
appoint Freeman Dyson; this failed when the Dean
of the Division (a physicist) asked "Who is

Stone grew weary of the struggle with the
administration for new resources, and stepped
down as chair in 1952. He was succeeded by Mac
Lane as chair from 1952-1958, and Adrian Albert
from 1958-1962. This period presented new
challenges, as Weil left in 1958, Chern and
Spanier in 1959, Segal in 1960, and Halmos in
1961. But this account will end here, as the
writing of recent history is too dangerous an

Notes: The material on this page has been
stitched together from the following sources:

* In A Century of Mathematics in America, Part
II, Peter Duren, ed. (assisted by Richard A.
Askey and Uta C. Merzbach), American Mathematical
Society, 1988: [See

. Saunders Mac Lane, Mathematics at the
University of Chicago: A Brief History.

. Karen Hunger Parshall, Eliakim Hastings
Moore and the Founding of a Mathematical
Community in America, 1892-1902, reprinted from
the Annals of Science, vol. 41, 1984, pp.
313-333. See

. Marshall Stone, Reminiscences of
Mathematics at Chicago, reprinted from The
University of Chicago Magazine (August 1976).
] Also see The Mathematical Intelligencer,Summer,
1989, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp. 20-22.

. Felix E. Browder, The Stone Age of
Mathematics on the Midway, reprinted from The
University of Chicago Magazine. [see

* The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive,
including particularly the entry on Eliakim
Hastings Moore. [See ]

An interesting account of life as a graduate
student at Chicago in the 1920's, reprinted in
the Century of Mathematics in America volume
mentioned above, is available online:

W.L. Duren, Jr., Graduate Student at Chicago in
the Twenties (access to JSTOR required). [See

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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