The Birth of the Institute for Advanced Study (1930)
"A first-rate research institution with no teachers, no students, no classes, only researchers protected from the vicissitudes and pressures of the outside world"
The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the few institutions in the world where the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the ultimate raison d'être. Speculative research, the kind that is fundamental to the advancement of human understanding of the world of nature and of humanity, is not a product that can be made to order. Rather, like artistic creativity, it benefits from a special environment. — IAS Bluebook
I’ve written in the past about the University of Göttingen and its historical status as a ‘center of the mathematical universe’ in the period from Gauss’ appointment as the Director of the Göttingen University Observatory in 1807 to the 1933 fleeing of much of its senior faculty, including Born, Franck, Wigner, Szilárd, Teller, Landau and Courant. This essay is the second part to that story—about communities of mathematicians that form in small, seemingly arbitrary geographical locations such as Göttingen and Princeton—quaint ceremonious villages, to paraphrase Einstein.
The narrative of the article is based on the wonderful chapter ‘The School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study’ by Armond Borel (1923-2004).
In the late 1920s, a prominent American educational reformer named Abraham Flexner (1866-1969) took it upon himself to conduct an extensive study of universities in the U.S and Europe, eventually concluding extremely critically about the state of higher edudcation in America (Borel, 1988). In particular, he deplored the lack of favorable conditions for proper, basic research.
Shortly thereafter, another prominent figure in American academia by the name of Oswald Veblen (1880-1960) was quoted in an article in the New York Times on the same topic. In his view, American scholars’ inferior research could be attributed to the fact that indeed the country still lacked a ‘genuine seat of learning’ such as those found in Oxford, Cambridge, Göttingen and Berlin.
Around the same time as Flexner and Veblen were making their views known, philanthropist Louis Bamberger (1855-1944) and his sister Caroline Bamberger Fuld (1964-1944) were in the process of surveying the state of medical education in the United States. At the time, they were interested in donating funds from their personal fortune to endow a medical college in Newark. Flexner, who was an authority on the state of medical education in the U.S., advised them against it, arguing that there was no real need for the new institution they were planning. Instead, he showed them the—still unpuliblished—final draft of a book he was writing on the state of higher education in the U.S. In his book, he made the case that the U.S. needed an institution like those in Oxford and Cambridge, devoted to research and higher learning. As he later wrote (Flexner, 1960):
“I was working quietly one day when the telephone rang and I was asked to see two gentlemen who wished to discuss with me the possible uses to which a considerable sum of money might be placed. At our interview, I informed them that my competency was limited to the education field and that in this field it seemed to me that the time was ripe for the creation in America of an institute in the field of general scholarship and science, resembling the Rockefeller Institute in the field of medicine—developed by my brother Simon—not a graduate school, training men in the known and to some extent in methods of research, but an institute where everyone—faculty and members—took for granted what was known and published, and in their individual ways, endeavored to advance the frontiers of knowledge.”
Bamberger and Fuld bought into Flexner’s vision within a few months of their first meeting, enthusiastically agreeing to fund a new corporation (one of the first of its kind) known by law as ‘Institute for Advanced Study - Louis Bamberger and Mrs. Felix Fuld Foundation’.
"A first-rate research institution with no teachers, no students, no classes, only researchers protected from the vicissitudes and pressures of the outside world" - Sylvia Nasar (1998)
The Institute’s original endowment was for $5 million—approximately $86,6 million in 2022. The corporation was founded in May of 1930, less than a year after Flexner and the Bambergers first spoke. The establishment was announced in the New York Times on June 8th 1930 with a short note reading:
“An initial gift of $5,000,000 by Louis Bamberger, retired head of L. Bamberger Co., Newark, and his sister, Mrs. Felix Fuld, to establish an educational foundation to be known as the Institute for Advanced Study, was announced yesterday.”
Veblen—who was a professor of mathematics at Princeton University—first learned of the Institute through that press release (Borel, 1988). He had discussed the possibility with Flexner abstractly at some point, but not kept up with what the the latter was up to. Upon hearing the news, Veblen immediately wrote to encourage Flexner to locate the institute in the Borough or Township of Princeton, near the university, “so that you could use some of the facilities of the University and we could have the benefit of your presence”. Veblen’s involvement hereafter grew, culminating in his departure from his seat at Princeton in 1932.
With zeal and deep pockets matching those of any impresario, Flexner began a worldwide search for stars, dangling unheard-of salaries, lavish perks, and the promise of complete independence. — Sylvia Nasar (1998)
Although (as of 2022) the IAS consists of four schools—for historical studies, mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences—in its founding years, there was only one: the school of mathematics. This because, as Flexner argued, “mathematics is fundamental, requires the least investment in plant or books and he could secure greater agreement upon personnel than in any other field”. Indeed, as Nasar later wrote, the “tools of the trade” in mathematics at the time basically amounted to books, pencils, paper, chalk and erasers. As for faculty, Flexner surmised that in the United States there were two prominent names who could lend sufficient prestige to the new institution from its outset. The first, Harvard’s Georg D. Birkhoff (1884-1944), was a highly respected mathematician once described by Gian-Carlo Rota (1932-99) as hard-working and aggressive, with a “touchy” personality. Both Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Nobert Wiener (1894-1964) at one point accused him of being anti-semitic and contributing to Harvard’s well-known anti-Semitic hiring practices. Wiener was a mathematical prodigy who had earned his Ph.D. in mathematical logic at Harvard before moving on to conduct postdoctoral work under Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) at Cambridge in 1913-14 and David Hilbert (1862-1943) and Richard Courant (1888-1972) in Göttingen in 1924-26. Son of another Harvard professor, Leo Wiener (1862-1939), he had tried to get an appointment in Birkhoff’s department but been rejected.
“The exodus from Harvard dealt a lasting psychic trauma to Norbert Wiener. It did not help that his father was a Harvard professor … or that Norbert’s mother regarded his move as a cruel comedown in life” —Paul Samuelson
The Bambergers were to have no such practices in their Institute. Indeed, as early as 1930 they wrote the following to their trustees:
“It is fundamental in our purpose, and our express desire, that in the appointments to the staff and faculty, as well as in the admission of workers and students, no account shall be taken, directly or indirectly, of race, religion, or sex.”
Despite his tendencies, Veblen eventually did extend an offer to Birkhoff, which included what was described as an ‘extremely high salary”. Birkhoff accepted, only to inquire about being released from the contract a mere eight days later. Thus, Flexner moved on to Veblen, arguing that “if the Princeton authorities agreed willingly and unreservedly, we could no do better than to select Veblen”.
Thus, the Institute for Advanced Study had its first faculty member, Oswald Veblen, nephew of renowned sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). Beyond his work as a topologist, Veblen had in the 1920s helped design Princeton University’s new mathematics building Fine Hall (now Jones Hall), at the time described as “the most luxurious building ever devoted to mathematics”, with its “gabled, Neo-Gothic red brick and slate fortress, built in a style reminiscent of the College de France in Paris and Oxford University” (Nasar, 1998).
“The dim stone corridors that circled the structure were perfect for both solitary pacing and mathematical socializing. The nine “studies” — not offices!— for senior professors had carved paneling, hidden file cabinets, blackboards that opened like altars, oriental carpets, and massive, overstuffed furniture. In a gesture to the urgency of the rapidly advancing mathematical enterprise each office was equipped with a telephone and each lavatory with a reading light. Its well-stocked third-floor library, the richest collection of mathematical journals and books in the world, was open twenty-four hours a day. Mathematicians with a fondness for tennis (the courts were nearby) didn’t have to go home before returning to their offices — there was a locker room with showers. When its doors opened in 1921, an undergraduate poet called it “a country club for math, where you could take a bath.”
- Excerpt, A Beautiful Mind* by Sylvia Nasar (1998)
The Institute opened “quietly and unostentatiously” on October 2nd, 1930.
The Original Six
For the first years of its existence, the IAS faculty consisted of five professors including Veblen and its Director, Flexner. The two personally recruited the other four. The first professor they approached was none other than Albert Einstein (1879-1955).
Einstein had in the years 1931-33 been travelling extensively, including for visiting stays in Pasadena at Caltech for the winter terms of 1931-33. His descision to permanently leave his professorship at the University of Berlin came following the publication of a viciously anti-Semetic illustrated brochure entitled Juden Sehen Dich An (“Jews are Watching You”) in May of 1932, featuring Einstein in its prologue alongside a photograph featuring the caption
“Discovered a much-contested theory of relativity. Was greatly honoured by the Jewish press and the unsuspecting German people. Showed his gratitude by lying atrocity propaganda against Adolf Hitler. Not yet hanged.”
Einstein’s pronounced opposition to the Nazi regime had indeed attracted the attention of Hitler’s sympathisers as early as 1930. By 1932, Einstein feared for the safety of his family. His decision to go to the IAS came as the result of three meetings with Flexner in 1932 (Pais, 1982 p. 450). The two first met by chance while traveling to Pasadena, where Flexner was meeting with the faculty at Caltech to discuss his new institution. When the two later met again in Oxford, Flexner asked Einstein outright if he might be interested in joining the Institute. During their third meeting at Einstein’s summer house in Caputh in June, Einstein responded that he would be delighted to come, on two conditions:
He could bring his assistant Walther Mayer (1887-1948); and
He would receive an annual salary of $3,000 (“unless I can live on less?”)
His appointment was approved in October and his salary set at $15,000.
“After three years of delicate negotiation, Einstein, the biggest star of them all, agreed to become the second member of the Institute’s School of Mathematics, causing one of his friends in Germany to quip: “The pope of physics has moved and the United States will now become the center for the natural sciences.”
- Excerpt, A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
The Institute had its second professor. As some noted however, Einstein wasn’t a mathematician. Veblen thus set out to find similarly accomplished mathematicians. At the top of his list among Europeans were Cambridge’s G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) and Göttingen’s Hermann Weyl (1885-1955). Veblen briefly tried for Hardy, but was quickly convinced that his efforts would be of no avail (Borel, 1988).
Weyl was an exceptional mathematician who had contributed to an unusually broad range of fields, including theoretical physics, pure number theory, the history of mathematics and electromagnetism. Indeed, Freeman Dyson (1923-2020) later wrote that Weyl “alone bore comparison with the last great universal mathematicians of the nineteenth century, Poincaré and Hilbert” (Dyson, 1956).
Weyl had spent the academic year 1928-29 in Princeton as a visiting professor. By 1930, he had returned to Europe in order to succeed Hilbert at Göttingen. Flexner and Veblen both approached him in 1932, when he expressed interest but also maintained strong misgivings about leaving Germany. He eventually agreed, but insisted that it would be necessary to add to himself, Veblen and Einstein also a younger mathematician, preferably an algebraist. As he wrote on July 30th:
“By his personality, Veblen is certainly the most qualified American one can wish […] but he is not a mathematician of as much depth and strength as say Hardy. The participation of Einstein is of course invaluable, but he pursues long-range speculative ideas […] He comes less under consideration as a guide for young people to problems which have necessarily to be of shorter range. I am of a similar nature […] Therefore I put so much value on having a man of the type of Artin or v. Neumann”
Indeed, the promise that an algebraist of “high promise” would be appointed as soon as possible was even written into Flexner’s proposal to Weyl, who accepted in December of 1932. He however did not begin work at the institute until January 1934, following a series of telegrams back and fourth between himself and Veblen in which Weyl withdrew his acceptance, then accepted “irrevocably” before withdrawing again. In his last telegram, he described suffering from nervous exhaustion. However, following increasing pressures on Jews and Aryans married to Jews in Germany, Weyl eventually accepted a renewed offer and left for America.
Both of the two algebraists Weyl mentioned were working at the University of Hamburg in the late 1920s. Emil Artin (1898-1962) was an Austrian mathematician working algebraic number theory, contributing to class field theory and the theory of L-functions. When Weyl left for the IAS in 1932, Artin was offered his professorship at ETH. Already a professor at the University of Hamburg, Artin declined.
John von Neumann (1903-57), of course, was the mathematical wunderkind who had worked with Weyl at ETH as a student before moving to Göttingen to continue his work on the foundations of set theory under David Hilbert (1862-1943), eventually ending up a Privatdozent at Hamburg in 1929. Although only 26 years old he had by then published 32 major papers, averaging about one major paper per month for the duration of his research career.
von Neumann first travelled to America in October 1929 when he was invited to lecture on the new quantum theory at Princeton. The visit led to an invitation for him to return as a visiting professor, which he did in the years 1930–33. The same year this tenure ended, Adolf Hitler first came to power in Germany. This lead von Neumann to abandon his academic posts in Europe altogether, stating about the Nazi regime that:
“If these boys continue for two more years, they will ruin German science for a generation — at least”
According to Borel (1988), while he was at Princeton, efforts were underway to extend an offer of a permanent professorship to von Neumann. Veblen had suggested that the Institute should also extend an offer, but Flexner was reluctant to approach yet another Princeton mathematician. However, as Weyl was still back and fourth about leaving Europe, an offer was eventually made and accepted. The minutes of a meeting of the executive committee on January 28th 1933 reads:
“Professor John von Neumann be appointed as a Professor in the School of Mathematics upon the following terms: that his appointment as Professor in the School of Mathematics date from April 1st, 1933; that his salary be fixed at Ten thousand Dollars ($10,000.00) per annum, of which he will contribute five per cent. (5%) to the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, the Institute contributing an equal sum monthly; and that unless his term of appointment be prolonged by mutual consent, he retire at sixty-five (65) years of age.”
Following Veblen, Einstein, Weyl and von Neumann was another Princetonian topologist: James Alexander (1888-1971). By 1933, Flexner and Veblen had decided to make an offer either to Alexander or Solomon Lefschetz (1884-1972). Lefschetz was a topologist who also worked on the theory of non-linear equations. He had been born in Moscow, studied engineering in Paris and emigrated to the U.S. in 1905. Two years later he was badly injured in an industrial accident, losing both of his hands. He thus decided to move towards mathematics, obtaining a Ph.D. in algebraic geometry in 1911. Following appointments at the University of Nebraska and the University of Kansas, he eventually moved to Princeton in 1924, where he was soon given a permanent position.
James Waddell Alexander II was also a topologist, also working at Princeton. A native of New Jersey, he had attended Princeton for all three of his B.Sc., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. A pioneer in algebraic topology, he established the mathematical foundations underpinning Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)’s homology theory and furthered the theory by establishing the related cohomology theory. The decision to extend an offer to him over Lefschetz had been made following discussions with the Dean of the Faculty at Princeton, Luther P. Eisenhart (1876-1965). According to Borel,
“I have heard indirectly that Eisenhart had said he could more easily spare Alexander than Lefschetz.”
As Borel writes, “In view of the much greater involvement of the latter in all the activities of the department, this seems rather plausible”. Apparently, Lefschetz had also been making frequent critical remarks of Veblen and the new Institute. However, when later asked who he (Lefschetz) would have chosen, he replied Veblen, Alexander, himself, Morse and Birkhoff, and Weyl.
The appointment of the sixth and final member of the original faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study was made in 1934, effective in 1935. Marston Morse (1892-1977) was the “other” prominent mathematician at Harvard, known for his work on the ‘calculus of variations in the large’, where he introduced Morse theory, a technique of differential topology.
Following the hiring of Alexander away from Princeton, Eisenhart, Flexner, Veblen and von Neumann agreed that Princeton and the IAS would henceforth jointly publish and share the financial responsibility for the Annals of Mathematics, which were to be co-edited by Lefschetz and von Neumann.
The Opening of Fuld Hall (Fall, 1939)
From its opening in 1933 to the fall of 1939, the IAS was located in the same building as the mathematics department at Princeton, Fine Hall (now Jones Hall). As Borel writes, “a new chapter in the life of the Institute began with the moving into the newly built Fuld Hall, on its own grounds”, a 40 minute walk from Fine Hall.
Professors Veblen and Alexander (who both worked in topology) and von Neumann moved into offices on the south-east wing of the first floor. Located directly above them on the second floor were the offices of Einstein, Weyl and Morse (respectively).
As the story goes, von Neumann received complaints for his regular playing of extremely loud German march music on his phonograph, which distracted those in neighboring offices, including Einstein (Macrea, 1992).
Additional resources on the history of the Institute for Advanced Study are available here.
Related Privatdozent Essays
Einstein’s Emigration to America (1932), Jan 6th 2022
The Unparalleled Genius of John von Neumann, May 19th 2021
The Eccentricities of J. Robert Oppenheimer, July 23rd 2021
Gödel’s Solution to Einstein’s Field Equations (1949), May 4th 2021
The Duties of John von Neumann’s Assistant in the 1930s, July 11th 2021
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Borel, A. 1988. The School of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Askey et al (eds.) A Century of Mathematics in America. Part III. p. 119-147
Flexner, A. (1960). Abraham Flexner: An Autobiography. p. 232.
Macrae, N. 1992. John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More*. Pantheon Press.
Nasar, S. 1998. A Beautiful Mind*. Simon & Schuster