# The Early History of the Cornell Mathematics Department: A Case Study in the Emergence of the American Mathematical Community

Gary G. Cochell

Professor of Mathematics

Culver-Stockton College

(This article appeared in Historia Mathematica **25** (1998), 133–153. It is included here with permission of the author).

**Abstract**: In this paper I describe the early history of the Cornell University Mathematics Department in the historical context of the late nineteenth century. In particular, I show that it is a case study of the emergence of the American mathematical community.

MSC 1991 subject classification: 01A55, 01A73

Key Words: Cornell University Mathematics Department, James Oliver, Virgil Snyder.

1. INTRODUCTION

2. THE BIRTH OF AN AMERICAN UNIVERSITY

3. THE FIRST MATHEMATICS DEPARTMENT

4. JAMES EDWARD OLIVER AND EARLY GRADUATE-LEVEL MATHEMATICS

5. A VIABLE GRADUATE PROGRAM

6. CORNELL MATHEMATICS AT THE END OF THE CENTURY

7. CONCLUSIONS

8. REFERENCES

1. INTRODUCTION

In their significant works Parshall and Rowe [45] [46], Fenster and Parshall [28] [29], and Parshall [44] clearly make the case for the emergence of the American mathematical research community in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Parshall says it this way: "In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, American mathematics underwent a series of dramatic changes that propelled it onto the international scene" [44, 7]. She credits the "opening of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with its explicitly articulated purpose of training students at an advanced, graduate level" [44, 7] as the beginning of this period of change. But with the departure of James Joseph Sylvester (1814-1897) the English transplant algebraist, from The Johns Hopkins University for England in 1883, the American mathematical scene had lost a leader for change. Almost exclusively America looked to Europe for guidance. Many American students of promise thus went to Europe for their doctorates or for post-doctoral work in the 1880s and 1890s. When this generation of European trained mathematicians came back and took the lead in their institutions, American mathematics emerged into a viable mathematical research community. In this paper, I will show that the early history of the Cornell Mathematics Department represents a case study in this emergence of the American mathematical research community. In fact, in the first decades of the twentieth century Cornell was among the leaders in this nation in the mathematical emergence.