Veblen, Oswald

Veblen, Oswald (1880-1960), who played a major role in the development of Princeton and American mathematics, was the grandson of a Norwegian cabinet maker who came to Wisconsin in 1847 and took up farming. He was the son of Andrew Anderson Veblen, a professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Iowa, and the nephew of the economist and social theorist Thorstein Veblen.

Oswald Veblen took an A.B. at the University of Iowa in 1898, a second A.B. at Harvard in 1900, and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1903. Dean Fine, who was then building up the mathematics department, heard of Veblen's work at Chicago and, at his suggestion, President Wilson called Veblen to Princeton as one of the original preceptors in 1905.

Dean Fine had a remarkable knack for picking promising young mathematicians, and none of his excellent choices was more successful than Veblen. He soon established himself as a leading geometer whose articles and books were noted for their completeness, precision, and clarity. He attracted many able graduate students, some of whom were added to the faculty, and he helped Dean Fine recruit other distinguished men for the growing department. His research and that of his students covered many fields, including the foundations of geometry, differential geometry and its connection with relativity theory, symbolic logic, and analysis situs (later known as topology). Under his leadership Princeton became one of the world's great centers in topology.

His influence in his profession extended beyond Princeton, earning him his reputation as a ``statesman of mathematics.'' As president of the American Mathematical Society in 1923-24, when its funds were low, he led a successful effort to make better known the importance of mathematics generally and to obtain gifts from foundations, business corporations, and individuals for mathematical research and publication. It was on his urging that the National Research Council began granting postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics in 1924.

When the Henry Burchard Fine Professorship, the first American research chair in mathematics, was founded in 1926, Veblen was named its first incumbent. On Dean Fine's death in 1928, Veblen paid him an impressive tribute in a memoir for the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, written in the lucid style that Fine had so admired. And when the Jones family provided funds for the original Fine Hall in 1929, Veblen supplied most of the ideas that went into its design.

He conceived of Fine Hall as a center about which mathematicians could (in his words) ``group themselves for mutual encouragement and support,'' and where ``the young recruit and the old campaigner'' could have ``those informal and easy contacts that are so important to each of them.'' The Common Room, which he hoped would increase the solidarity of the mathematics faculty and students and encourage their closer relation to the physics group from nearby Palmer, was placed so that everyone had to pass it to get to the library on the top floor. There was another room of this sort reserved for professors on the principle, ``not always understood by those who try to bring about closer relations between faculty and students,'' Veblen said, ``that in all forms of social intercourse the provisions for privacy are as important as those for proximity.''

In 1932 Veblen resigned the Fine Professorship to accept appointment as the first professor in the Institute for Advanced Study, which had just been established. He was largely responsible for selecting the other members of its original mathematics faculty (James W. Alexander II, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Herman Weyl) and also for determining the Institute's policy of concentrating on postdoctoral research. He helped relocate many distinguished foreign mathematicians after Hitler's rise to power, and in his later years (as the Institute's director J. Robert Oppenheimer observed) ``provided a real clearing house at the Institute for mathematicians from all over the world.'' The year he retired as professor at the Institute, 1950, his lifelong devotion to the advancement of mathematics was recognized by his selection as president of the International Congress of Mathematicians, held at Harvard.

All his life Veblen loved the outdoors. He was influential in the purchase of a large tract of land for the site of the Institute, whose woods provide attractive walks for its members and for the Princeton community. In 1957, he and his wife deeded eighty-one acres of an extent of wooded land where they lived in later years, called by them Herrontown Wood, to Mercer County to provide a place where, in their words, ``you can get away from cars and just walk and sit.''

Veblen was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the academies of science in Denmark, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Peru, Poland, and Scotland. He was awarded honorary degrees by Chicago and Princeton, and also by Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hamburg, Oslo, and Oxford. And, like his father before him, he was made a Knight of Norway's Royal Order of St. Olaf.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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