History of the Department

Written by Ed Halfar, Bill Leavitt, Earl Kramer, David Skoug.

The department is in debt to Emeriti Professors Ed Halfar and Bill Leavitt for extensive work that resulted in the first version of the department's history which was written at the time of our 1981/1982 Academic Program Review. Several faculty, including Partha Lahiri, Jim Lewis, Walter Mientka, Lal Saxena and Mel Thornton contributed to updating this history with major efforts from Earl Kramer and Dave Skoug.

On February 15, 1869, the Nebraska legislature passed a bill authorizing the establishment of a University made up of six colleges or departments. One of these was to be a College of Ancient and Modern languages, Mathematics and Natural Sciences. On September 7, 1871, the University of Nebraska opened. Henry E. Hitchcock, A.M., was appointed to fill the single position in mathematics with the rank of professor.

The initial program of courses in mathematics was extremely modest. Geometry, Plane and Spherical Trigonometry, Analytic Geometry and Calculus were the only subjects offered. It was early accepted that mathematics, in particular calculus, would not be a required study for all students. In the first University Catalog it is noted that Surgery and Calculus are not required of students in the Classical course. Exemptions from other mathematics were soon included. The University Register and Catalog for the Fourth Session, 1874-1875, explained that (except in the Scientific course) General Geometry and Calculus were optional courses from the fact that those students who, through lack of taste or ability, are not likely to gain a clear understanding of the principles will derive more benefit from other studies than from the memorizing of their rules and formulae. Such rationale, in forms modified to fit the situations, has persisted through the years. The pattern of minimizing mathematical exposure established then has continued to exist within the College to this day. However, every college at UNL now requires students to take at least one course in the Math/Stat area, which includes Math 104, 106, 107, 203, and Stat 180 as well as some quantitative courses that are in other departments. In addition, UNL now has an entrance requirement of four years of high school mathematics which must include 2 years of algebra, 1 year of geometry, and one year that builds on algebra and geometry. (It use to be 2 years of math with only the stipulation that it include one year of algebra.)

Nevertheless, it was recognized that advanced mathematics (as well as other advanced classical studies) was essential to the development of the University, but this recognition was tempered by the feeling that the immediate needs of the University precluded any significant support of specialists pursuing their interest. Chancellor Edmond B. Fairchild, in his inaugural address of June 22, 1876, proclaimed that mathematics must be taught from algebra to the Principia of Newton and the Mechanique Celeste of LaPlace if it be so required. Even then, this hyperbole was undoubtedly intended to be taken as a statement of sentiment rather than a proposal of a program. That Chancellor Fairchild was not proposing any rapid development of advanced studies was emphasized when later in his address in discussing the aquisition of a specialist faculty, he asserted the University was not ready...for the learned doctor who spent 6 hours a week (for twenty-two weeks) on the theory of analytic functions.

The mathematics program did develop, albeit slowly. Professor Hitchcock, who had not yet finished his doctoral studies when he accepted the position at the University, was granted a Ph.D. from Knox College in 1874. He had, in the meantime, become involved in administration and in 1883 simultaneously filled the posts of Dean of the College and Acting Chancellor, Chancellor Fairchild having suddenly resigned. The demand for more mathematics offerings did rise, and the program by that time was enlarged to offer Theory of Equations, Determinants and Quaternions. Charles Little, who had only completed his A.B. at the University in 1879, was appointed as a Tutor in Analytical Chemistry and Mathematics in 1880. He and Hitchcock would for the the next few years do the bulk of the teaching in mathematics.

In 1884, the University Catalog announced that advanced work in mathematics was available and that the courses of study leading to the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees would soon be offered. The A.M. degree program was set up with the barest of resources. Charles Little was granted an A.M. in Mathematics in 1885. In some unexplainable fashion he evidently was also granted a Ph.D. degree from Yale that same year. How this was managed is unclear, although summer study is a possibility. Thereupon he was advanced to the position of Tutor in Mathematics and Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, but by 1886, he was completely in the College of Engineering.

Although Little's mathematical involvement was small, in an unusual way the role he played had a significant impact on the development of the Department of Mathematics. To fill the opening left by Little, the University appointed Mr. T. Morey Hodgman, who had only an A.B. degree, as Instructor in Physics and Mathematics. Then in 1893, Professor Hitchcock, who had apparently been ill for an extended period, was involuntarily retired by the Board of Regents; and Little was transferred back to the Department of Mathematics in April, 1893. This must have been against his wishes too, for he summarily resigned the following June. As Hodgman's credentials were not substantial, he was probably not considered a successor to Little. Instead Dr. Ellery Davis, who had studied at Johns Hopkins University, was appointed with the rank of Professor. Davishad excellent training, and under his direction a sound mathematics program was to evolve. That same year Albert L. Candy, who had just completed his A.M. studies at the University of Kansas, was appointed an Instructor and became a Ph.D. candidate. These two, along with Hodgman now an Associate Professor and three other instructors, formed the mathematics faculty.

Also in 1895, the first official description of the Ph.D. program in mathematics appeared in the University Catalog. The list of advanced courses was broadened to include Differential Equations, Advanced Analytic Geometry, Theory of Probability and Curve Tracing. Among the graduate students (four listed) was Derrick Lehmer of Ord, Nebraska. He had just finished his A.B. degree in 1893. While he did not continue his doctoral studies at the university, his Nebraska origin is noted for he (and later his son, Derrick, too) became an outstanding number theorist. The graduate program also early attracted students from outside Nebraska. This was possibly more because some financial support was available than because of the program of courses.

Albert Luther Candy

In 1898, Candy was granted the first Ph.D. degree in Mathematics although he had completed an acceptable dissertation by 1896. The reasons for this delay were are not known, but they probably were procedural. Candy's dissertation itself is somewhat unusual in format: it consists of reprints of a two-part paper entitled "A General Theorem Relating to Transversals, and Its Consequences," which appeared in the Annals of Mathematics, Vol. 10-11, 1896. Meanwhile George R. Chatbuyrn and Carl C. Engberg were admitted to doctoral degree candidacies. A further expansion of courses took place with the addition of advanced Differential Equations, Algebra of Quantities, Lie Theory of Continuous Groups and a biweekly seminar.

By 1900, the Department was well into its second phase of development. It has passed from being only a service area to a department offering undergraduate and graduate degrees. The expanded faculty now included Candy and Engberg, who was granted the Ph.D. degree in 1899. Chatburn, who began doctoral studies in mathematics with Engberg, had, like Little, opted for Engineering. By 1906, he was Professor of Applied Mechanics and Machine Design and had given up his candidacy. Other graduate students enrolled though. Robert Moritz, Ph.M. from Chicago University, and Louis Stiff, B.S. from Cornell University, enrolled in 1898. Added to the courses offered were Elementary Theory of Functions, Geometry of Position and Algebraic Systems along with an informal mathematics literature study course entitled Journal Club.

In 1900, Professor Davis was made Dean of Literature, Science and Arts College, but he retained the position of head of the Department. Moritz was granted the Ph.D. degree, but Louis Stiff apparently gave up his studies and departed. Among the candidates for an A.M. degree was William Vernon Lovitt, who had an A.B. degree from Nebraska. He later authored a fairly well known text on integral equations. As an adjunct to the Department, a division of study in Biometry was established. It was described as the mathematical theory of evolution and the mathematical analysis of biological problems. This program was entirely the responsibility of Dr. Engberg. Throughout its existence, it was a four course program, two of which were of the preparatory mathematics type covering introductory topics in calculus, probability and statistics.

During the early 1900's, the mathematics program attracted some female graduate students. While there may not have been a strong connection, a graduate course, Mathematical Pedagogy, was offered. This involvement of the Department in professional education was evidently deemed important and continued for a number of years.

In 1904, Hodgman left the Department to become the Inspector of Accredited Schools. In the early days of the University, in order to cope with the problem of inadequate preparation of students, the University maintained a list of accredited regional high schools whose graduates could be admitted without reservations. Hodgman remained in this position until he left the University shortly afterwards and played no further role in the Department of Mathematics.

Carl C. Enberg

Carl C. Engberg,
Dean of the College of Arts & Science, 1917

By 1909, a stable nucleus for the department existed. Davis, while Dean, was active in the program. Candy and Engberg, though earning Ph.D.'s locally in a program that in retrospect could hardly be called respectable, maintained active interests in mathematics. Joining this group were William Brenke, who was granted a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and Lulu Runge, A.M. from the University of Wisconsin. These latter two thus began an association with the University that lasted many years. The teaching efforts, however, were largely expended on the elementary and service courses. These along with the courses for teachers formed a substantial part of the program beyond calculus. The concern with providing adequate academic training for teachers of mathematics manifested itself in the University Catalog. The 1910-1911 issue advises that

it is very desirable that prospective teachers of mathematics add all or part of courses 5,7,20. These were Differential Equations, Theory of Probability and Theory of Functions. They will thus get ideas that will vivify their teaching. It is also desirable that physics should accompany mathematics even if to do so the amount of mathematics taken be diminished.

The graduate program continued to attract some students. There were regularly three or four master candidates yearly, but few opted to stay beyond that. As mentioned earlier, the percentage of women among these graduate students was large, but except for Lulu Runge, none undertook a doctoral program in mathematics at the University. Graduate study on the doctoral level was undoubtedly rather informally structured. The Seminar and Journal Club were valuable, for they provided contact with the faculty and mathematical literature and stressed the independent study of mathematics.

The next two appointments to the faculty were, to put it dramatically, flirtations with the potentially famous. Dr. Solomon Lefschetz was appointed an Instructor in 1911, but resigned two years later to join the faculty of the University of Kansas. From there he went on to a distinguished career at Princeton University. To fill the vacated position, the University appointed Dr. Henry Blumberg, who being active in research, was promoted rapidly and became an Associate Professor in 1917. Meanwhile, Engberg was appointed Executive Dean (a position equivalent to present-day Dean of Faculties), but he continued to teach classes as did Davis.

During the 1917-1918 academic year, Dean Davis became ill and unexpectedly died. In the resulting reorganization, Engberg became Acting Dean of the College also and Candy became Head of the Department. The description of the program in that year's University Catalog was definitely upbeat. The mathematics library was glowingly described as containing about 3000 volumes to which the student has free access. Some 20 mathematical periodicals are kept on file including leading journals in English, French, German and Italian. A bimonthly seminar that met from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. was attended by all faculty and advanced students for discussion of current literature, presentation of results of investigation and solutions of assigned problems. The list of advanced mathematics courses contained History of Mathematics, Infinite Series, Theory of Aggregates, Projective Geometry, Foundations of Algebra and Geometry, Modern Geometry, Differential Geometry, Continuous Groups, Calculus of Variations, Theory of Numbers and Integral Equations.

The year following the entry of the United States into World War I brought an unfortunate sequence of events that led to the resignation of Henry Blumberg. Accusations of unpatriotic activities or sympathies were made against a number of faculty, among them Blumberg. An inquiry completely exonerated him, but this experience no doubt was basic to his leaving. While the resignation of a faculty member with recognized abilities to accept a position elsewhere was not to be a rare occurrence, for few would it be so evident a case of going in order to leave rather than leaving in order to go. Professor Blumberg's resignation was a blow to the development of the Department. He was a highly original and productive mathematician. The story is told that one of his major papers was a consequence of a colleague's remark about having to impose conditions on some functions because if one didn't there was not much to say about them. Blumberg's paper: "New Properties of All Real Functions" TAMS 24(1922), pp. 113-130, studied functions for which nothing beyond the definition was assumed. From Nebraska, he went to the University of Illinois and later to Ohio State University, where he was a highly respected mathematician and faculty member.

Chester C. Camp

Chester C. Camp

With the end of World War I, the undergraduate enrollment increased substantially. Meyer G. Gaba, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and Tracy A. Pierce, a Ph.D. from the University of California, joined the faculty as Associate Professor and Instructor respectively. Both were to remain. The Department still had a heavy involvement in teacher training. Allan R. Congdon who had been a local student and had done some graduate study in mathematics, was appointed Associate Professor of the Pedagogy of Mathematics. The Biometry program was abandoned, but otherwise the program and its direction changed little during the next few years.

In the early twenties, a bigger involvement in Insurance Mathematics was undertaken. Two staff members on the instructor level were added to teach insurance courses. On of these, Floyd Harper, remained on the faculty until the mid-forties. The attempts to develop the purely mathematical program were also continuing. Dr. Chester C. Cam, who did his advanced study at Cornell University, left the faculty of the University of Illinois to become an Associate Professor. The rate of two or three master's degree candidates per year continued but none went on to successful doctoral programs though some did start. After the death of Dean Davis, Miss Runge, whose graduate study he had been directing, withdrew from candidacy for the doctorate. In 1925, Howard P. Doole, A.M. Missouri, was appointed an Instructor and became the first doctoral candidate in the post World War I period to complete a doctoral program in mathematics. He remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1968.

There was other evidence, however, to indicate ongoing scholarly activity. The library had grown to 6000 volumes with an active subscription list of some 20 periodicals. There were bimonthly seminars and an active mathematics club which was later to become one of the charter chapters of Pi Mu Epsilon. The University Catalog listed 24 graduate level courses, but most were irregularly offered. Because Lincoln was small with its few cultural and recreational opportunities centered around the University, the Mathematics Club, as did other university student organizations, served a social function too. Faculty regularly attended the meetings, and some used those meetings as opportunities to show off mathematical superiority through such tactics as one-upmanship. One anecdote bears retelling for the insight it gives to both the professional and personal sides of some of the faculty. One professor memorized the first 100 digits in the decimal expansion of π and was wont to recite them at meetings of the Mathematics Club. Another professor memorized the next five digits and on one of these occasions, probably the last, when the first 100 had been recited, got up and announced, "and the next five digits are..."

Parenthetically, it should be noted that they were doing only what comes naturally. Mathematical research (and teaching too) frequently has traits of one-upmanship, though of a more refined type than that exhibited above. One need only recall the story of the Blumberg paper told earlier if evidence is needed.

In 1928, the Department moved to the Mechanics Arts Building. It had been in the Museum Building (later renamed the Geography Building) which was short of space. The Mechanics Arts Building was to be the home of the Department until 1950 when a move was made to Burnett Hall. The move to the Mechanics Arts Building, other than providing more space, was desirable because the Engineering-Mathematics library was housed there. This proximal arrangement was maintained until 1946 when the collections were moved to the recently completed Love Library. The crowded state of the M.A. building and its vulnerability to fire played a big part in causing the Department to acquiesce to the move. Regrets over this separation of the library from the Department came later. Burnett remained the home of the Department until 1969, when the Department moved into the eighth and ninth floors of Oldfather Hall, where it has remained to this day.

Except for Camp and Doole, who remained on the faculty after completing his doctorate in 1929, no lasting appointments were made in the period from 1920 to 1930. In 1928, Magnus Hestenes, who had just completed his master's degree work at the University of Wisconsin, was appointed an Instructor. He stayed two years but resigned to go elsewhere to continue his doctoral studies. He became a mathematician of considerable repute. Merrill Flood, who earned both an A.B. and A.M. degree at the University showed much promise and was appointed an Instructor in 1929 ostensibly with the understanding he would continue his doctoral studies locally. He resigned, however, after two years to continue his studies away. He later became well-known as an applied mathematician. In 1930, Miguel Basoco, who was granted his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology, was appointed Assistant Professor to fill the vacancy created by Engberg's death. For the period from 1930 through the end of World War II, Basoco was the most active in the Department. In addition to his research work, he was a significant figure in faculty involvement in administrative management of the University.

William C. Brenke

William C. Brenke
Chair, 1934-1944

In the meantime, within the Department some functions were changed through administrative reorganization. The Teachers College was now a firmly established entity. Congdon, who continued to teach the courses relating to pedagogy, was transferred to the Teachers College faculty. Astronomy, which had been a separate department but had used mathematics faculty, principally Brenke, to teach courses such as Celestial Mechanics was moved to Mathematics in 1932. The Department was thereupon renamed to be the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy. Professor Goodwin Swezey, who had headed the Astronomy Department for many years, retired. Pierce and Collins shared the teaching of astronomy. Candy had retired in 1935, and Brenke, who was now Chairman, did not involve himself in the teaching. The astronomy program did not flourish and eventually the demand fell off to a point where only Collins was teaching astronomy courses.

The depression of the thirties did not curtail enrollment growth so that further appointments to the faculty were needed and were made. In 1935, one of the rare women appointments was made. Dr. Anna A. Stafford, of the University of Chicago came as Instructor. Her stay was, however, only a brief two years. Harper, who had been on leave, finished his doctoral work at the University of Iowa and returned to give renewed emphasis to actuarial work. Three other appointments of Ph.D. degree holders as Instructors in 1938 and 1939 gave hope that the stature of the Department would grow noticeably. The entry of the United States into World War II dashed these hopes.

Military demands caused most of the young male faculty and graduate students to leave. On the other hand, the military training programs which the University took on included elementary mathematics in their courses of study. The Department met the demands this brought on by assigning to these classes mathematically oriented faculty from other departments. Thus, in 1943, the mathematics teaching staff included a Professor of School Administration in charge of Athletic Coaching, an Associate Professor of Secondary Education, the Director of Instructional Research, an Assistant Professor of Architecture, an Instructor in Anthropology and the Librarian in charge of the Engineering and Mathematics Library.

Brenke reached retirement age during these times and did retire in 1943. Ralph Hull, who held a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago was appointed as Chairman. He was put on official leave, however, since he was involved in work for the military. He did take over the chairmanship in 1945 and remained until 1947 when he unexpectedly resigned to accept a position at another university. Basoco, who was the best known in the Department and had taken a prominent part in faculty matters relating to administration, was the natural local choice to succeed Hull. He became Chairman in 1947 and to him fell the responsibility of building the Department. At the end of the 1946-1947 academic year, after Hull's resignation, only Basoco, Camp, Gaba and Runge remained from the prewar faculty with Camp, Gaba and Runge nearing the ends of their careers.

Prior to his resignation, Hull made two appointments at the instructor level. William G. Leavitt, a Nebraska alumnus with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and Edwin Halfar, Ph.D. from the State University of Iowa. These were the first of many appointments to come during the expansion years of the post World War II period.

The University changed substantially. There was a rapid growth in enrollment and this forced an expansion in the size of the faculty. Agricultural, industrial and scientific developments brought about changes in the curricula of the respective colleges of Agriculture, Business and Engineering, changes which ultimately placed heavier emphasis on mathematical training for their students than had previously been the case. Though the following has no relevance to the role of mathematics in the Agriculture College's program, the fact that after 1949 Stud Bull was no longer listed in the Faculty and Staff telephone directory of the University may be taken as symbolic of the changes taking place. Faculty growth did not keep pace with enrollments, however, especially at the lower levels. This created teaching problems that were not to be resolved except by radically restructuring the method of handling calculus and precalculus classes.

Of much more significance to the Department were the developments that led to a surge of interest in and support for advanced mathematics study and research. The international political and scientific rivalry triggered by the initial space successes of the fifties and the role that mathematics played, helped create an atmosphere in which support for advanced study and employment opportunities in mathematics thrived. With the support that the University made available through graduate teaching assistantships encouraged many capable students to turn to mathematics as a major area of study.