A Brief History of the Princeton University Mathematics Department

Göttingen, Paris, Cambridge: these and a handful of other universities made Europe the world center of excellence in mathematics and physics at the end of the 19th century. Few, then, could have predicted that the New World could possibly challenge the Old for domination in the two disciplines. Even fewer could have foreseen the role that Princeton University would play in that successful challenge.

In 1900 Princeton had been a university for only four years; before 1896, it was called simply the “College of New Jersey.” And in 1900 Princeton had yet to feel Woodrow Wilson’s drive, as University president (1903-10), to elevate the educational quality of the institution. The Mathematics faculty numbered eight, the Physics faculty only four, at the turn of the century. Both departments taught a wide variety of courses in the University’s academic program as well as in the program of the School of Science. And neither had a home of its own: Mathematics was located in the library (now East Pyne Hall), and Physics had space in the old School of Science, which was destroyed by fire in 1928.

Though quarters may have been imperfect, there were those who seemed not to mind. The central figure in Mathematics, of course, was Henry Burchard Fine, an 1880 Princeton graduate who joined the faculty in 1885 after graduate study at Leipzig. By 1900 the senior member of his department, he would serve as its chairman from 1904 until his death in 1928. Fine also was Dean of the Faculty during Wilson’s presidency; when Wilson instituted the preceptorial system in 1905, Fine began to assemble a cadre of brilliant young mathematical minds. By decade’s end the Mathematics faculty could count such additions as Luther P. Eisenhart, Gilbert Ames Bliss, George D. Birkhoff, Oswald Veblen, and J.H.M. Wedderburn.

In abbreviated desciption, then, these developments gave Princeton Mathematics and Physics their impetus toward excellence in the 1900s. The limits of space prevent mention of the accomplishments of the teens and twenties—but the thirties cannot be as summarily dismissed.

By 1930 the senior Princeton mathematicians—Veblen, Wedderburn and Eisenhart (chairman)—had been joined by Solomon Lefschetz, James Waddell Alexander, Alonzo Church, C. Einar Hille, John von Neumann, Eugene P. Wigner and Howard P. Robertson (the latter three holding joint appointments in Mathematics and Physics). Others who came later in the decade—Salomon Bochner, Albert W. Tucker, Norman E. Steenrod, and Ralph H. Fox—helped form a nucleus of mathematical strength that remained stable through the 1960s. Also in the 1930s, Samuel S. Wilks began to program in statistics, joined later by John W. Tukey, which led to formation of a Department of Statistics in 1965.

In 1931 Princeton Mathematics gained a new home with the completion of the first Henry Burchard Fine Hall. Linked to Palmer Laboratory, and housing a joint mathematics-physics library, Fine Hall helped further a growing relationship between the two disciplines. In another highlight of the thirties, the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Mathematics opened in 1933, with Albert Einstein and Hermann Weyl among the professors; for several years pending construction of its nearby facilities, members of the School were housed in Fine Hall.

Though the reputation of Princeton Mathematics was secure by the time of World War II, the department continued to advance in distinction and strength. The number of faculty members grew to over 50 by the late 1960s and the number of students increased considerably as well, until the department outgrew the once-comfortable Fine Hall. The new Henry Burchard Fine Hall (home of the Princeton Mathematics Department) was occupied in 1970, providing enlarged quarters and better facilities for the continuing development of the department.