The Extraordinary Legacy of Oswald Veblen

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.

James Alexander, Albert Einstein, Frank Aydelotte, Oswald Veblen, Marston Morse. (Photographer unknown, from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, mid 1940s.)

From Iowa to Princeton

Veblen, born in 1880, grew up the oldest of eight children in a Norwegian immigrant family in Iowa City, Iowa, where his father was a professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Iowa. Veblen graduated from the University of Iowa at age 18 then taught for a year before going to Harvard University for a second undergraduate degree. He went on to the University of Chicago, where he studied with the renowned mathematician E.H. Moore, earned his doctoral degree, and remained for two additional years of study, teaching, research, and writing.

Veblen came to Princeton University in 1905 to join the mathematics department and immediately began work with another young instructor, Luther Eisenhart, and Dean of the Faculty Henry Fine to advance the cause of mathematics at the University and throughout the country.

“The year 1905 marks the beginning of Princeton’s ascendance to world-class mathematics standing,” wrote Steve Batterson in a May 2007 American Mathematical Society journal article on “The Vision, Insight, and Influence of Oswald Veblen.” “Veblen’s fingerprints immediately appear all over the University’s successful efforts to recruit promising young talent.”

Veblen was also making progress on his work on projective geometry, a project that culminated in a classic text on the subject. He was promoted to full professor in 1910, as his status grew rapidly in the world of mathematics.

At the onset of World War I, Veblen’s focus shifted to the war effort. “This career move illustrated his modus operandi,” wrote Batterson. “Veblen was a visionary with an unusual capacity for implementation and realization of his ideas. In this case he wanted to utilize his skills to benefit the Army.”

He enlisted when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. During his college years in Iowa he had won prizes in sharpshooting, as well as math, and he brought those skills together in service to the war effort as he assumed charge of experimental ballistics at the new Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. With the help of other young mathematicians he had helped to recruit, Veblen worked on understanding and predicting the flight of artillery shells and bombs, a ballistics project that has been cited as an important step in the development of computational mathematics and the computer — an endeavor that Veblen was to take up again in the 1930s when he helped bring to Princeton the computer pioneers Alan Turing and John von Neumann.

Veblen returned to Princeton University in 1919, was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences that same year, and quickly rose to become an advocate for mathematics and research mathematicians. The status of European university mathematicians at the time was generally higher than that of Americans, and the European faculty members had lighter teaching loads and more freedom to focus on research and advanced students.

Mathematics at Princeton continued to rise in national and international prominence, with the department becoming one of the leading math departments in the country, but there was no math building, and most Princeton mathematicians had no offices and worked from home.

Veblen, who had traveled extensively in Europe and observed universities in Germany and elsewhere, believed strongly in the value of personal interaction, intellectual dialogue, and a community of scholars. He pushed for Princeton to create a home for its math department. The necessary funds were donated as a memorial to Dean Fine, who had been struck by a car and killed while riding his bicycle on Nassau Street in 1928, and it was decided that Fine Hall, rather than a wing added to the physics building, would be a separate building. Veblen took over the planning of the new Fine Hall.

“While Fine Hall proved itself to be a building of exceptional utility, the most striking feature was its opulence,” wrote Batterson. “Lavish oak paneling, carved figures, and fireplaces were incorporated throughout. It was all Veblen’s doing. He believed that mathematical research was a high calling and that scholars deserved comfort and consideration.”

All research faculty members received offices, and there was a spacious library, a common room, and a professors’ room. There was also 24-hour access and daily afternoon teas, designed to promote study and interaction.

At the dedication ceremony when Fine Hall opened in 1931, Veblen stated that Princeton and other research universities “are beginning to feel the necessity of providing centers about which people of like intellectual interests can group themselves for mutual encouragement and support, and where the young recruit and the old campaigner can have those informal and easy contacts that are so important to each of them.”

Fine Hall was renamed as Jones Hall in 1971 when a newer math building was constructed.

As Eisgruber wrote in his State of the University letter, “Oswald Veblen understood that people are the heart and soul of a great university, and he also understood that thoughtfully designed buildings can stimulate the collaborations, activity, insights, and friendships that animate a scholarly community. His vision for the old Fine Hall, and its timely completion, attracted brilliant thinkers to Princeton and forged a scholarly legacy that remains vibrant almost a century later.”

Veblen at the International Congress of Mathematicians at Harvard University. (Photographer unknown, from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, 1950.)

An Institute for Research and Graduate Education

As Veblen was planning Fine Hall in the summer of 1930, he learned that the Bambergers, who had sold their department store chain to the Macy Company just before the 1929 stock market crash, had donated $5 million to fund the creation of an institution devoted entirely to graduate education and research.

Louis Bamberger and his sister Carrie Fuld were set on Newark for the location of the Institute for Advanced Study, but Abraham Flexner, who had been chosen to direct the institute, was attracted to Princeton, a site originally proposed to him by Veblen.

The two men had long envisioned such an institute, and Flexner was ready to begin his institute with mathematics. Fine Hall, headquarters of Princeton’s golden age of mathematics, became the home of the Institute for Advanced Study for its first years, until the building of the Institute’s Fuld Hall in 1939.

The IAS opened in 1932 with Veblen and Albert Einstein its first members, but Veblen’s persistent advocacy did not end there, as he selected most of the original faculty and took charge in selecting the land in western Princeton on which the Institute currently resides.

John von Neumann (on left) and Veblen with two colleagues. (Photographer unknown, from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA, undated.)

A New Home for Foreign Scholars

When Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, distinguished scholars were forced to leave many of Germany’s most prominent universities. The timing was perfect for Veblen and Flexner’s recruitment efforts. Einstein, who had been targeted by the Nazis in Germany, was joined in 1933 by Hermann Weyl, mathematics luminary at the renowned Mathematical Institute at the University of Gottingen, and John von Neumann, a famous young mathematician of Hungarian origin who was a visiting professor at Princeton University at the time.

Over the next few years, they were joined by Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, logician Kurt Godel, algebraist Emmy Noether, topologist Anna Stafford, and many other visiting scholars.

Veblen continued to persuade Flexner, in following the founding principles of the IAS, to accept scholars purely on the basis of merit, without regard to religion, race, or gender, embracing the finest mathematicians from around the world. He went on to propose the creation of a committee to raise funds to support refugee scholars and undertook a campaign to find positions in the United States for newly unemployed German scholars whose lives were in danger.

As the turbulence in Europe grew, Flexner, at first reluctant, eventually joined Veblen in the New York City-based Institute of International Education’s Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars (later renamed to include all foreign scholars) to assist scholars fleeing Europe.

Veblen used his influence at Princeton, his European contacts, and his stature in the international mathematics community to lead in the relocation of mathematicians in the United States, often prevailing against elements of anti-Semitism and xenophobia that were prevalent on campuses throughout the country.

“That Veblen was able to succeed in these humanitarian endeavors was likely what earned him the unusual appellation statesman of mathematics,” wrote Batterson. “Indeed, Veblen’s bold diplomacy created manifold pathways that decisively improved the plight of mathematicians and elevated American research.”

One of Veblen’s important links to the European academic community was Owen Richardson, a Nobel Prize winner in physics from England who had met Veblen when they were both teaching at Princeton in the early 1900s. Veblen and Richardson’s sister Elizabeth were married in 1908.

Elizabeth loved gardening and hosted meetings of the Dogwood Garden Club. At Princeton University, and later at the IAS, she helped establish the tradition that remains to this day of afternoon tea that brought scholars together to exchange ideas. The numerous daffodils that she planted around the Veblen House in Herrontown Woods continue to thrive.

The Veblen House in Herrontown Woods. (Photos courtesy of the Friends of Herrontown Woods)

Princeton’s First Nature Preserve

Without Oswald Veblen, Princeton would have neither Herrontown Woods nor the Institute Woods. Making lists of parcels of land for the Institute to buy as he was making lists of scholars and institutions to hire them, Veblen persuaded the IAS of the need to give back to the community and the wisdom of buying more than 600 acres of land along the Stony Brook in the 1930s.

In 1957, the Veblens donated the first 81 acres of Herrontown Woods to Mercer County, and it became Princeton and Mercer County’s first nature preserve, a place “where you can get away from cars and just go walk and sit,” Veblen wrote. In 1958 the Mercer County Parks Commission was created.

After Veblen and his wife moved into what is now known as the Veblen House in the woods of eastern Princeton, he would give talks about the geometry of trails, and the next day he would be clearing poison ivy from the towpath, said FOHW President Steve Hiltner, a botanist, naturalist, musician, and writer. “He did his best thinking chopping wood. Veblen, the ‘woodchopping professor,’ not only valued walking in the woods but also led his colleagues on workdays to keep the trails open.”

Hiltner continued, “He saw synergy between the intellectual and the physical. There was a hands-brain-mind link that made him so productive.” Hiltner noted how Einstein would visit Veblen in the cottage on Saturday afternoons, and they would spend the afternoon “discussing things, getting away from the Institute, experiencing a simpler life.”

Oswald Veblen died in 1960. When Elizabeth Veblen died in 1974, an additional 14 acres, along with the house and cottage, became part of Herrontown Woods bequeathed to the county. Over the years the property became increasingly neglected, with the Veblen House and Cottage boarded up and the trails overgrown, until 2013 when a few local nature enthusiasts and artists began clearing trails. The Friends of Herrontown Woods, inspired by the Veblen’s legacy, became an official nonprofit, and, as Hiltner noted, “their beloved Veblen house and Herrontown Woods are again becoming a place for people to gather and explore.”

Elizabeth Veblen serving tea. (Photographer unknown, from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA, undated.)

The Town Takes Ownership

When the town of Princeton took ownership of the property in 2017, resolving years of discussion about the fate of the land and buildings, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert described Herrontown Woods as “one of the jewels of Princeton’s park system.” She noted that the Veblen property had “gone mostly untended for decades,” but praised the work of FOHW in restoring it. “We’re very fortunate to have the enthusiastic volunteers of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, who have already done extensive and exceptional maintenance work on the network of trails and stream crossings,” she said.

Hiltner emphasized Veblen’s achievements. “We’ve come to treasure being a part of Veblen’s legacy, and we want to tell people about it and about what one person can do,” he said. “Veblen saw the connections between geometry and woodland trails, between intellect and nature.”

The FOHW, about to sign a five-year lease on the property for a nominal sum, is making plans for ongoing stewardship of the land and restoration work on the buildings, which, in addition to the house and cottage, include a barn, a corn crib, and a garage. Recent accomplishments of the FOHW volunteer naturalists and gardeners include trail construction and improvements, the expansion of a botanical garden, the creation of a meditation garden, and construction of a boardwalk.

“The house and cottage provide a broad profile of cultural history from the early 20th century, from the hardscrabble farmers who built the cottage to the economic and intellectual elite of the Whiton-Stuarts and the Veblens. Tying it all together is Oswald Veblen, who loved both intellectual endeavors and outdoor work,” said Hiltner.

“Veblen was a visionary and a humanitarian and he had persistence,” Hiltner added. “He very quietly made a lot of things happen. He valued mathematics and he also valued mathematicians. And he saw beyond mathematics to care about the world in general and about the town of Princeton as well as the University.”