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John Wesley Young Research Instructorships

Bancroft H. Brown

Date: 1963

For 140 years, from the founding of Dartmouth College until 1909, there were only 13 professors of mathematics, a11 of whom were mediocre or less, with one possible exception. The exception was Arthur Sherburne Hardy, Ph.D., the author of a text on quaternions, the only mathematical output by a Dartmouth man in 19th century. But he did no significant research in mathematics, his book on quaternions was not epoch-making, and the Ph.D. was an honorary awarded from Amherst. Dissatisfied with the academic life, he resigned, entered public life, and was successfully United States Minister to Persia, Greece, Switzerland, and Spain. An eminently respectable man; but one doesn't name a Research Instructorship for him.

The situation in 1909 was this. The two professors of mathematics, ``Frankie'' Sherman and ``Tute'' Worthen, were due to retire two years later in 1911 after 40 and 38 years of service respectively. The new President, Dr. Nichols, was a research physicist with an international reputation, and her very reasonably felt that after 140 years, Dartmouth was entitled to a first-rate mathematician. His choice was Charles Nelson Haskins, who had had a brilliant career at M.I.T., taken his doctorate at Harvard, pursued post-doctoral studies abroad, and had had considerable teaching experience.

To his aging colleagues who had probably never heard of an epsilon-delta proof, the rigorous standards of this young man must have seemed appalling. Under his skillful handling (and uncanny knowledge of the market) the mathematical section of the Library grew from zero to one of the best collections in the country. He failed in only one respect, but here his failure was absolute--he could not teach Freshmen and Sophomores. The trustees decided to keep him but they did not dare to make him Head of the Department. Instead they elected as the new Head, John Wesley Young, a man six years younger than Haskins.

Young came here in 1911, at the age of 31, and the Head of the Department at that time really was the Head. Within limits set by the Trustees, he could hire and fire, and fix all salaries (except his own). He defined the department curriculum, selected the textbooks and drew up the teaching assignments. Few teachers today have had experience with such a set-up. If you have the right kind of a Head, it can be a very efficient system, although it will always tread on the toes of academic freedom. If you have an arbitrary Head (and Dartmouth had several) it can be unendurable.

Young was a good Head. He knew how to pick men, how to use them, and how to delegate power. The Mathematics Department was no longer a New England museum. He secured Bill from Acadia, Silverman from Missouri, Forsyth from Michigan, Mathewson from Illinois, and later Tamarkin from Russia. A Department which had consisted of two ancient worthies, and a few untrained assistants, suddenly became one of the strongest departments in the College. When, later, the Trustees (at the insistence of the young President Ernest Martin Hopkins) considered changing the policy from Head to a rotating Chairman, to his credit be it said, Young was one of the few Heads who spoke in favor of the change which was actually made in 1919.

Before that time, Haskins' value to the Department and to the College was abundantly evident. Off to a bad start, he showed tremendous potentiality in unexpected ways; he was promoted,' given tenure (never a light thing, then or now), and by 1920 we find in the Department two strong, utterly diverse, but dedicated men, Young and Haskins.

In setting up our Research Instructorships, the only possible choice of names is between Haskins and Young. Let us consider which name seems more fitting. This requires evaluation of national prestige, of local contribution, and it may require a compromise between the two.

To begin with Haskins. The tragedy of his life was that he was born too soon. Today, if a young man of his abilities came along, every research outfit in the country would bid for his services. In World War I he demonstrated his organizing ability at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. But in peace times a mathematician had to teach. He was not a good elementary teacher. Irreverent students nicknamed him ``Hippo'', which was pertinent, and not particularly derogatory. These students respected him; but' he couldn't hit their levels, and they couldn't climb to his heights.

At research he worked incessantly, but never realized his full potential. Fundamentally, he should have been a member of, or a leader of a team. Working alone, he spent years devising methods for the determination of the orbits of asteroids and comets; but modern machines and programming were even then making his work obsolete.

His service to Dartmouth College in connection with the Library were impressive, in fact, unique. No Chairman of the Library Committee ever gave more painstaking or more intelligent service. When Baker Library was built , he was Chairman of an overall Truste-Faculty Committee, and he was personally responsible for many of the detailed excellencies of that truly great building. The Trustees gave him an honorary Ph.D. for these services -- a most unusual honor for a man in active service.

Cy Young came here with an established reputation based on:

It must be remembered that prior to 1910 very few American texts on advanced mathematics had appeared. The few that had appeared were rather generally considered too difficult for American undergraduates.

Actually it was Young's Fundamental Concepts that gave him a national reputation. This book, a rewrite of a series of lectures which he gave in a summer session, was a book to read and enjoy--a book to widen your horizon. Fifty years later it makes surprisingly good reading. Young reached his peak early, he never reached it again.

Young created the Dartmouth Mathematics Department in a way that Haskins could never have done. Young could bring in diverse talents, blend them, and bring out the best in them. Haskins was an organization man; but the organization had to be his kind. He was not at his best in the free give and take which one associates with the faculty of a college of liberal arts.

Young never realized his creative abilities at Dartmouth, and that was partly his fault, and partly Dartmouth's fault. From 1911 until his death in 1932, there was not the urge for productivity that we felt today. With time out for World War I, those were calm years in which the upper crust of academic society lived ``the good life.''

Nevertheless, Young's record is not a negative one. As Chairman of the National Committee on the Reorganization of the Secondary Curriculum, he bought out a Report in the early twenties which had great influence, and almost entirely for the good. If the Report seems on the conservative side today, it must be remembered that Young's Committee was opposing some vested interests whose outlook was medieval. He wrote a Carus monograph on Projective Geometry which is still a pleasure to read. There were several excellent research papers. Young was elected President of the Mathematical association of America, and his Presidential Address was an eloquent appeal to all of us to utilize our own peculiar talents-high or low--for the best interests of our profession.

It seems to boil down to this. Probably Haskins, in his own peculiar way, did more for Dartmouth College. But Young has a higher standing among mathematicians, and he did more for mathematics, and for the Dartmouth Mathematics Department.

Comparisons are not easy. Decisions can't be completely objective. But at the time the Research Instructorships were first proposed it seemed to all the Active and Emeritus Professors who had known these men that the appropriate title was: ``The John Wesley Young Research Instructorships in Mathematics.''

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Anne Webster-Grant 2001-12-13