Veblen at the blackboard in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study. (Photographer unknown, from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, undated.)
Celebrating His Many Gifts to Princeton — in Woodlands and Mathematics, for Town and Gown
By Donald Gilpin | Photographs courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study
This June 24 marked the 140th anniversary of the birth of Oswald Veblen. Veblen’s Princeton legacy – at Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the town – has been monumental, and now, through the Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), Princeton is preparing to deliver a gift in return.
FOHW, a nonprofit, volunteer-led cultural and environmental organization, is eager to honor the legacy of Veblen and his wife Elizabeth as it continues to restore and preserve the 95 acres of Herrontown Woods, now Herrontown Arboretum, that the Veblens donated to Mercer County in 1957 and 1974, with Princeton receiving it by transfer from Mercer County in 2017.
The FOHW, which will soon sign a formal lease with the town, is moving forward in assembling a team of architects, builders, and volunteer workers to formulate plans for repairs to the Veblen House and Cottage. They are also creating an outdoor exhibit on Veblen using the boarded-up windows of the house as exhibit space, a “Windows into the Past” to tell stories about the Veblens, who moved into what came to be known as the Veblen House in 1941.
Veblen, his extraordinary achievements, his legacy, and its lessons for today were the basis of Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s 2020 State of the University letter to the community in February. Eisgruber highlighted Veblen’s contributions to the world of mathematics and the world-famous Princeton University Department of Mathematics, Veblen’s influence in the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) and bringing about its location in Princeton rather than Newark, and his accomplishments in bringing hundreds of refugees to IAS, Princeton, and other U.S. universities in the 1930s.
His story, Eisgruber wrote on “The President’s Page” of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “not only illuminates Princeton’s past but also illustrates how today’s actions can shape the University for decades into the future.”
Describing Veblen as “a faculty member with tremendous vision and constructive energy” who “probably did as much as anyone to reform and improve this University,” Eisgruber emphasized Veblen’s “humanitarian courage” in his insistence on bringing refugees, like Jewish emigres Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Eugene Wigner, to Princeton, “to the great benefit of this University and our country.” Eisgruber continued, “At a time when anti-Semitism and nativism are on the rise, we need to remember the principles he exemplified.”
In his State of the University report, Eisgruber cited Veblen’s “critical role in rescuing Jewish scholars from persecution in Europe.” He noted, “Veblen worked with the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars to accommodate refugees at Princeton and elsewhere in the country. The scholars whom Veblen helped bring to Princeton included professors of mathematics, physics, economics, and art history.”
The FOHW “Windows into the Past” exhibit, to be mounted in the coming months, will expand on these stories of Veblen’s life and more. It will feature photos and narrative from Veblen’s Norwegian ancestry and his boyhood in Iowa in the 1880s and 1890s to his prominent role in the Princeton University Department of Mathematics and in the founding and growth of the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1920s and 1930s. It will also focus on his leadership in founding Princeton’s open space movement and the impact of his rich legacy in the present. more