The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s

An Oral-History Project

Introduction to the Original Typewritten Transcript Collection (1985)

These interviews concern primarily the mathematics community in Princeton in the 1930s. Most of the discussion focuses on the institutional and social context of the development of an eminent mathematical research and graduate-education center, and on the personalities and biographies of the individuals involved. Information about technical accomplishments within mathematics are only peripherally considered.

In the 1930s, with Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton became the site of one of the strongest and largest centers of mathematics research and graduate education in the world, as well as a leader in the formation of an indigenous American mathematical-research community. These mathematicians played prominent roles during this period in developing the new fields of mathematical logic, topology, and mathematical statistics, and made noteworthy contributions to differential geometry, mathematical physics, and other mathematical specialties. The distinguished faculties of the University mathematics department and the IAS School of Mathematics included James Alexander, Salomon Bochner, Albert Einstein, Luther Eisenhart, Solomon Lefschetz, Marston Morse, Oswald Veblen, John von Neumann, Hermann Weyl, and Eugene Wigner. Hundreds of others were participants in this decade as faculty members, permanent researchers, visitors, post-doctoral students, or graduate students.

The period studied here begins with the planning of a mathematics building (Fine Hall) in 1929 and the charter of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1930. It terminates with the completion of separate quarters (Fuld Hall) for the Institute in 1939 and the beginning of the second world war. While most of the faculty members at the University and the Institute in the 1930s had died by the time this interview project began in 1984, there were several faculty members alive and willing to participate, as well as a number of graduate students, visitors, and permanent researchers.

Their testimony concerns primarily the reasons for their decision to come to Princeton, their assessments of the educational and research programs, and the effects of the Depression and the European political situation on academic life. However, the interviews do reach back to 1905 when Princeton President Woodrow Wilson introduced the preceptorial system, which allowed the hiring of a number of promising young mathematicians, and traces institutional developments through the 1920s that helped to shape the mathematical environment of the 1930s. The interviews occasionally extend forward and deal with such topics as war-time mathematical research and the building of an electronic computer at Princeton just after the war.

The following is an alphabetical list of the participants in the oral-history project.

John Bardeen
Valentine Bargmann
George W. Brown
Robert Cameron
Alonzo Church
Leon W. Cohen
Joseph Daly
William L. Duren
Churchill Eisenhart
William Flexner
Merrill Flood
Alfred Leon and Ilse Foster
John Giese
James Wallace Givens
Herman Goldstine
Robert E. Greenwood
Israel Halperin
Leon Henkin
Banesh Hoffmann
Robert Hooke
Nathan Jacobson
John Kemeny
Stephen Kleene
Derrick and Emma Lehmer
Jack Levine
Edward J. McShane
Deane Montgomery
Alexander M. Mood
Frances Morrey
Malcolm Robertson
J. Barkley Rosser
Robert Singleton
Ernst Snapper
Abraham H. Taub
Angus E. Taylor
Albert W. Tucker
John Tukey
Robert Walker
Hassler Whitney
Eugene Wigner
Shaun Wylie

This oral-history project was the idea of Albert W. Tucker, who has been a member of the Princeton University mathematics department almost continuously since 1929, first as a graduate student and later as a faculty member and chairman of the department. He mentioned his idea to Professor Charles C. Gillispie of the Princeton University Program in History of Science. Professor Gillispie arranged for support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New York, and he served as the administrator of the project. Professor Tucker and William Aspray conducted the majority of the interviews—Dr. Aspray's time being donated by the Charles Babbage Institute of the University of Minnesota. Frederik Nebeker, a graduate student in the Program in History of Science at Princeton, edited the transcripts, prepared the index, and handled many administrative matters.

The interviewing began in April of 1984 and ended in June of 1985. Three interviews of Albert Tucker, which had been conducted earlier but not transcribed, were added to the project (Transcripts 38, 39, 40). The project comprises 42 interviews and three written contributions. All interviews have been transcribed and edited and then been reviewed by the interviewee(s). The principal aim of the editing has been clarification. Secondary aims have been to reduce redundancy and to verify names of people and titles of books.

Because there is no present plan to publish the transcripts and because it will not be possible to provide photocopies on request, the transcripts are being made available for consultation at the University Archives in the Seeley G. Mudd Library of Princeton University, at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and at the Charles Babbage Institute in Minneapolis for responsible scholarly use. Copyright resides with the Trustees of Princeton University, and the transcripts are made available for use according to the Fair Use provisions of the U.S. copyright revisions of 1976.



All concerned wish to acknowledge in the first instance the generosity of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which granted the funds that have defrayed the major portion of the cost of the project. In addition, we are grateful to the Charles Babbage Institute, which authorized the participation of Dr. William Aspray; and at Princeton University to the Department of Mathematics, the Program in History of Science, and the Computer Center, all of which contributed time and services. The most general obligation, however, is to all the participants, who entered into the interviews and went to the further trouble of rewriting and correcting the transcripts.

World Wide Web Editing Modifications

The original typewritten transcripts were provided by the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University [see its catalog reference], and then scanned and converted to HTML in a volunteer (tedious and time consuming) effort in 1999-2000, requiring some slight adaptation for the new format by:

Robert T. Jantzen
Professor of Mathematical Sciences
Villanova University
A.B. in Physics, Princeton University, 1974
Ph.D. in Physics, University of California at Berkeley, 1978
  [thesis advisor: Abraham Taub (PMC14),
    Ph.D. in mathematics, Princeton University, 1935,
    editor of John von Neumann: Collected Works
    Oxford University Press, 1963]

Additional thanks go to the staff of Fine Hall Library for making me aware of the existence of this project and for suggesting that I could meet Charles Gillispie, who then arranged permission for this web version, to Joan Lesovitz of Villanova University's Instructional Technology Department for helping with the bulk of the raw scanning of the transcripts, and to Najib Nadi of the Computer Sciences Department of Villanova University for the computer programming help in converting the index page references to links to page bookmarks in the web transcripts.

The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s