by Marshall H. Stone
In 1946 I moved to the University of Chicago. An important reason for this move was the opportunity to participate in the rehabilitation of a mathematics department that had once had a brilliant role in American mathematics but had suffered a decline, accelerated by World War II. During the war the activity of the department fell to a low level and its ranks were depleted by retirements and resignations. The administration may have welcomed some of these changes, because they removed persons who had opposed some of its policies. Be that as it may, the university resolved at the close of the war to rebuild the department.
The decision may have been influenced by the plans to create new institutes of physics, metallurgy, and biology on foundations laid by the university’s role in the Manhattan Project. President Hutchins had seized the opportunity of retaining many of the atomic scientists brought to Chicago by this project, and had succeeded in making a series of brilliant appointments in physics, chemistry, and related fields. Something similar clearly needed to be done when the university started filling the vacancies that had accumulated in mathematics. Professors Dickson, Bliss, and Logsdon had all retired fairly recently, and Professors W. T. Reid and Sanger had resigned to take positions elsewhere. The five vacancies that had resulted offered a splendid challenge to anyone mindful of Chicago’s great contribution in the past and desirous of ensuring its continuation in the future.
When the University of Chicago was founded under the presidency of William Rainey Harper at the end of the nineteenth century, mathematics was encouraged and vigorously supported. Under the leadership of Eliakim Hastings Moore, Bolza, and Maschke it quickly became a brilliant center of mathematical study and research. Among its early students were such mathematicians as Leonard Dickson, Oswald Veblen, George Birkhoff, and R. L. Moore, destined to future positions of leadership in research and teaching. Some of these students remained at Chicago as members of the faculty. Messrs. Dickson, Bliss, Lane, Reid, and Magnus Hestenes were among them.
Algebra, functional analysis, calculus of variations, and projective, differential geometry were fields in which Chicago obtained special distinction. With the passage of time, retirements and new appointments had brought a much increased emphasis on the calculus of variations and a certain tendency to in-breeding. When such outstanding mathematicians as E. H. Moore or Wilczynski, a brilliant pioneer in projective differential geometry, retired from the department, replacements of comparable ability were not found. Thus in 1945 the situation was ripe for a revival.
A second, and perhaps even more important, reason for the move to Chicago was my conviction that the time was also ripe for a fundamental revision of graduate and undergraduate mathematical education.
The invitation to Chicago confronted me with a very difficult question: “Could the elaboration of a modernized curriculum be carried out more successfully at Harvard or at Chicago?”
When President Hutchins invited me to visit the university in the summer of 1945, it was with the purpose of interviewing me as a possible candidate for the deanship of the Division of Physical Sciences. After two or three days of conferences with department heads, I was called to Mr. Hutchins’s residence, where he announced that he would offer me not the deanship but a distinguished service professorship in the Department of Mathematics.
The negotiations over this offer occupied nearly a year, during which I sought the answer to the question with which it confronted me. It soon became clear that the situation at Harvard was not ripe for the kind of change to which I hoped to dedicate my energies in the decade following the war. However, it was by no means clear that circumstances would be any more propitious at Chicago than they seemed to be at Harvard. In consulting some of my friends and colleagues, I was advised by the more astute among them to come to a clear understanding with the Chicago administration concerning its intentions.
There are those who believe that I went to Chicago to execute plans that the administration there already had in mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, my negotiations were directed toward developing detailed plans for reviving the Chicago Department of Mathematics and obtaining some kind of commitment from the administration to implement them. Some of the best advice given me confirmed my own instinct that I should not join the University of Chicago unless I were made chairman of the department and thus given some measure of authority over its development. Earlier experiences had taught me that administrative promises of wholehearted interest in academic improvements were too often untrustworthy. I therefore asked the University of Chicago to commit itself to the development program that was under discussion, at least to the extent of offering me the chairmanship.
This created a problem for the university, as the department had to be consulted about the matter, and responded by voting unanimously that Professor Lane should be retained in the office. As I was unwilling to move merely on the basis of a promise to appoint me to the chairmanship at some later time, the administration was brought around to arranging the appointment, and I to accept it. Mr. Lane, a very fine gentleman in every sense of the word, never showed any resentment. Neither of us ever referred to the matter, and he served as an active and very loyal member of the department until he retired several years later. I was very grateful to him for the grace and selflessness he displayed in circumstances that might have justified a quite different attitude.
Even though the university made no specific detailed commitments to establish the program I had ready to accept the chairmanship as an earnest of forthcoming support. I felt confident that with some show of firmness on my part the program could be established. In this optimistic spirit I decided to go to Chicago, despite the very generous terms on which Harvard wished to retain me.
Regardless of what, many seem to believe, rebuilding the Chicago Department of Mathematics was an uphill fight all the way. The university was not about to implement the plans I had proposed in our negotiations without resisting and raising objections at every step. The department’s loyalty to Mr. Lane had the fortunate consequence for me that I felt released from any formal obligation to submit my recommendations to the department for approval. Although I consulted my colleagues on occasion, I became an autocrat in making my recommendations. I like to think that I am not by nature an autocrat, and that the later years of my chairmanship provided evidence of this belief. At the beginning, however, I took a strong line in what I was doing in order to make the department a truly great one.
The first recommendation sent up to the administration was to offer an appointment to Hassler Whitney. The suggestion was promptly rejected by Mr. Hutchins’s second in command. It took some time to persuade the administration to reverse this action and to make an offer to Professor Whitney. When the offer was made, he declined it, and remained at Harvard for a short time before moving to the Institute for Advanced Study.
The next offer I had in mind was one to André Weil. He was a somewhat controversial personality, and I found a good deal of hesitation, if not reluctance, on the part of the administration to accept my recommendation.
In fact, while the recommendation eventually received favorable treatment in principle, the administration made its offer with a substantial reduction in the salary that had been proposed. I was forced to advise Professor Weil, who was then in Brazil, that the offer was not acceptable. When he declined the offer, I was in a position to take the matter up at the highest level. Though I had to go to an 8 A.M. appointment suffering from a fairly high fever, in order to discuss the appointment with Mr. Hutchins, I was rewarded by his willingness to renew the offer on the terms I had originally proposed. Professor Weil’s acceptance of the improved offer was an important event in the history of the University of Chicago and in the history of American mathematics.
My conversation with Mr. Hutchins brought me an unexpected bonus. At its conclusion he turned to me and asked, “When shall we invite Mr. Mac Lane?” I was happy to be able to reply, “Mr. Hutchins, I have been discussing the possibility with Saunders and believe that he would give favorable consideration to a good offer whenever you are ready to make it.” That offer was made soon afterward and was accepted. There were other appointments, such as that of Professor Zygmund, that also went smoothly, but what would happen in any particular case was always unpredictable.
One explanation doubtless was to be found in the university’s hand-to-mouth practices in budgeting. This would appear to have been the reason why one evening I was given indirect assurances from Mr. Hutchins that S. S. Chern would be offered a professorship, only to be informed by Vice-President Harrison the next morning that the offer would not be made. Such casual, not to say arbitrary, treatment of a crucial recommendation naturally evoked a strong protest. In the presence of the dean of the Division of Physical Sciences I told Mr. Harrison that if the appointment were not made, I would not be a candidate for reappointment as chairman when my three-year term expired. Some of my colleagues who were informed of the situation called on the dean a few hours later to associate themselves with this protest. Happily, the protest was successful, the offer was made to Professor Chern, and he accepted it. This was the stormiest incident in a stormy period. Fortunately the period was a fairly short one, and at the roughest times Mr. Hutchins always backed me unreservedly.
As soon as the department had been brought up to strength by this series of new appointments, we could turn our attention to a thorough study of the curriculum and the requirements for higher degrees in mathematics. The group that was about to undertake the task of redesigning the department’s work was magnificently equipped for what it had to do. It included, in alphabetical order, Adrian Albert, R. W. Barnard, Lawrence Graves, Paul Halmos, Magnus Hestenes, Irving Kaplansky, J. L. Kelley, E. P. Lane, Saunders Mac Lane, Otto Schilling, Irving Segal, M. H. Stone, André Weil, and Antoni Zygmund. Among them were great mathematicians, and great teachers, and leading specialists in almost every branch of pure mathematics. Some were new to the university, others familiar with its history and traditions. We were all resolved to make Chicago the leading center in mathematical research and education it had always aspired to be. We had to bring great patience and open minds to the time-consuming discussions that ranged from general principles to detailed mathematical questions. The presence of a separate and quite independent college mathematics staff did not relieve us of the obligation to establish a new undergraduate curriculum beside the new graduate program.
Two aims on which we came to early agreement were to make course requirements more flexible and to limit examinations and other required tasks to those having some educational value.
This streamlined program of studies, the unusual distinction of the mathematics faculty, and a rich offering of courses and seminars have attracted many very promising young mathematicians to the University of Chicago ever since the late 1940s. The successful coordination of these factors was reinforced by the concentration of all departmental activities in Eckhart Hall with its offices (for faculty and graduate students), classrooms, and library. As most members of the department lived near the university and generally spent their days in Eckhart, close contact between faculty and students was easily established and maintained. (This had been foreseen and planned for by Professor G. A. Bliss when he counseled the architect engaged to build Eckhart Hall.) It was one of the reasons why the mathematical life at Chicago became so spontaneous and intense. By helping create conditions so favorable for such mathematical activity, Professor Bliss earned the eternal gratitude of his university and his department. Anyone who reads the roster of Chicago doctorates since the later 1940s cannot but be impressed by the prominence and influence many of them have enjoyed in American — indeed in world — mathematics. It is probably fair to credit the Chicago program with an important role in stimulating and guiding the development of these mathematicians during a crucial phase of their careers.
As I have described it, the Chicago program made one conspicuous omission — it provided no place for applied mathematics. During my correspondence of 1945–46 with the Chicago administration I had insisted that applied mathematics should be a concern of the department, and I had outlined plans for expanding the department by adding four positions for professors of applied subjects. I had also hoped that it would be possible to bring about closer cooperation than had existed in the past between the Departments of Mathematics and Physics.
Circumstances were unfavorable. The university felt little pressure to increase its offerings in applied mathematics. It had no engineering school, and rather recently had even rejected a bequest that would have endowed one. Several of its scientific departments offered courses in the applications of mathematics to specific fields such as biology, chemistry, and meteorology. The Department of Physics and the Fermi Institute had already worked out an entirely new program in physics and were in no mood to modify it in the light of subsequent changes that might take place in the Mathematics Department.
However, many students of physics elected advanced mathematics courses of potential interest for them — for example, those dealing with Hilbert space or operator theory, subjects prominently represented among the specialties cultivated in the Mathematics Department.
On the other hand, there was pressure for the creation of a Department of Statistics, exerted particularly by the economists of the Cowles Foundation. A committee was appointed to make recommendations to the administration for the future of statistics with Professor Allen Wallis, Professor Tjalling Koopmans, and myself as members. Its report led to the creation of a Committee on Statistics, Mr. Hutchins being firmly opposed to the proliferation of departments.
The committee enjoyed powers of appointment and eventually of recommendation for higher degrees. It was housed in Eckhart and developed informal ties with the Department of Mathematics.
At a somewhat later time a similar committee was set up to bring the instruction in applied mathematics into focus by coordinating the courses offered in several different departments and eventually recommending higher degrees.
Long before that, however, the Department of Mathematics had sounded out the dean of the division, a physicist, about the possibility of a joint appointment for Freeman Dyson, a young English physicist then visiting the United States on a research grant. We had invited him to Chicago for lectures on some brilliant work in number theory that had marked him as a mathematician of unusual talent. We were impressed by his lectures and realized that he was well qualified to establish a much needed link between the two departments.
However, Dean Zachariasen quickly stifled our initiative with a simple question, “Who is Dyson ?” Dyson soon became a permanent member of the Institute of Advanced Study.
By 1952 I realized that it was time for the Department of Mathematics to be led by someone whose moves the administration had not learned to predict. It was also time for the department to increase its material support by entering into research contracts with the government.
Fortunately there were several colleagues who were more than qualified to take over. The two most conspicuous were Saunders Mac Lane and Adrian Albert. The choice fell first on Professor Mac Lane, who served for the next six years.
Under the strong leadership of these two gifted mathematicians and their younger successors the department experienced many changes, but flourished mightily and was able to maintain its acknowledged position at the top of American mathematics.