The Conrell Campus, 1870

The Cornell Campus around 1870

Laurent Saloff-Coste – Cornell Mathematics history page

L. Saloff-Coste 

Wellcome. I maintain this page about the history of the Cornell Mathematics Department

email: lsc(at) or lps2(at)

How this page came to be

In 2015, I was Chair of the Department of Mathematics and the University celebrated its sesquicentenial: The Charter establishing Cornell University was signed by the Governor of New York in 1865 and the University opened in 1868.

I thought it would be fun to learn about the history of Cornell and its Department of Mathematics and started to read available material and dig into the department and university archives. What do we know about the first professors, the first students, their interests, and the development of the department and university? I was surprised to discover it was not very hard to establish the list of all faculty members of the Department of Mathematics up to 1930, and to find information about their whereabouts and careers. The early years of Cornell University coincides with the emergence of scientific research in the United States and this made looking at the department history more fascinating. The department website includes history pages that give some basic information including the complete list of Cornell Mathematics Ph.D.s.

Content (Links are found on the left-column menu)

  • The link Part I (1868-1898) on the top-left menu takes you to a 148 pages pdf document:

NOTE: If you open one of the pdf documents using acrobat reader you should be able to use the left-column bookmark feature to help you navigate the document using chapters, sections and subsections.

  • The link Short bios, Part I takes you to a 34 pages pdf document containing short biographies of the main characters appearing in Part I. They are, in alphabetic order:

Agnes Sime Baxter; Abram Rogers Bullis; William Elwood Byerly;
Henry Turner Eddy; Evan William Evans; George Egbert Fisher;
Rollin Arthur Harris; Arthur Hathaway; Edward Wyllys Hyde;
George William Jones; Annie Louise MacKinnon; James McMahon;
John Hiram Messenger; Ida Martha Metcalf; James Edward Oliver;
Anna Helene Palmié; Ziba Hazard Potter; Paul Louis Saurel;
Charles Ambrose Van Velzer; Lucien August Wait.

  • The link Part II takes you nowhere at this time! Part II, under construction, will cover the period 1899-1935.

  • The link PhDs before 1940 take you to the complete list of the one hundred doctorates awarded by the Cornell Department of Mathematics before 1940.

Some highlights: Part I

  • In my opinion, the most important character in the entire history of Mathematics at Cornell is James Edward Oliver, the second Chair of the Department, who served as chair for 21 years from 1874 to his death in 1895. Although there is no remaining traces of his mathematics activities, he was considered a mathematics genius in the context of the American scientific community of his time (he was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Science). He devoted his professional life to establishing an ambitious research oriented mathematics department and graduate program at Cornell. The department Colloquium, which he created as a mathematical club in 1891, has been named after him since 1898. To a large extend, the text Mathematics at Cornell: Stories and Characters, 1865-1965, Part I: 1865-1898 is an attempt to present the life work of Jimmy Oliver in the context of the devopment of Cornell University and other similar institutions.

  • Among the first Cornell students with mathematics interests, the lifes and works of Arthur Hathaway, Rollin Arthur Harris and Annie Louise MacKinnon provide remarkable examples of what it meant to pursue research interests in mathematics at the end of the nineteen century in the United States.

Some highlights: Ph.D. recipients before 1940 include

1872 The first Cornell Ph.D. in any subject, Henry Turner Eddy.
1888 Rollin Arthur Harris, the first Cornell student to publish his Thesis (it appeared in the Annals of Mathematics). He made influencial contributions to the Theory of Tides.
1894 Annie Louise MacKinnon, the third Women to be awarded a Ph.D. in Mathematics in the United States. Her work was published in two articles in the Annals of Mathematics and she spent two years working with Felix Klein at Göttingen after earning her Ph.D.. She taught at Wells College in Aurora, NY.
1902 Henry Louis Rietz who became a founding member and the first presidemt of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. Thanks in part to his Iowa student Samuel Wilks–later Professor of Statistics at Princeton–Rietz is credited by the Mathematics Genealogy Project with over 1600 mathematics descendants.
1904 Clarence Lemuel Elisha Moore who later left his mark at MIT.
1925 Elbert Frank Cox, the first African American to earn a Mathematics Ph.D.
1932 Robert Horton Cameron who, with W.T. Martin, introduced in Wiener space theory the notion now known as the Cameron-Martin space.
1935 Gertrude Blanch, known for her work on special functions and on the Mathematical Tables Project. She was awarded the Federal Woman's Award in 1964.

The Conrell Campus with students and faculty, 1870

The Cornell Campus around 1870 with students and faculty members. Images from Cornell's Rare Book and Manuscript Collections