A Little Personal
History about AWT's perilous route to Princeton.
AWT was born in 1905 and grew up in a small town in the
province of Ontario in Canada. His
father was a minister
who had to retire early on a tiny pension when the two Methodist churches in
his town were combined. AWT badly
wanted to go to the one very good university in Canada, the University of
Toronto. Because of his family's
poverty, his only chance was to win one of two Toronto scholarships available
each year to high school seniors in Ontario.
Unfortunately, he did not do well enough on the scholarship
exam as a senior and so he repeated his senior year to try again for the
scholarship. Fortunately, the
second time he won the scholarship.
He planned to be a high school math teacher but, at the end of college,
wanted to learn more mathematics before teaching and stayed on at Toronto for a
Master's degree supported by a TAship (Toronto had no
doctoral program). He excelled and
was encouraged to go to a top European university such as Cambridge or
Gottingen for a PhD. However, in a
pile of books in the room he used for office hours, he found a graduate
bulletin from Princeton and was captivated for the range of geometry courses
offered there. He decided to apply in the form of a letter from his supervising
professor to the Princeton Math chairman Nathan Fine.
However, Fine had just died and the letter was in a pile of
office materials that a University official gave to Fine's wife.
She got around to opening the letter
some months later and passed it to the new math chair Luther Eisenhart.
All the admission offers and financial
support had been committed then, but at the last minute a part-time math
instructor left and the position was offered to AWT based on his
TAship experience at Toronto.
He arrived in Princeton in the fall of 1929 and never left.
He died in 1995 in a nursing home near
1. Soon after AWT became a faculty member in the Princeton
Mathematics Department in 1933, the senior member of the department Solomon Lefschetz
asked AWT if he were a member of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA),
the mathematical organization focused on collegiate mathematics teaching.
AWT replied that he was not an MAA
member, only a member of the mathematical research organization, the American
Mathematical Society (AMS).
Lefschetz then demanded, "Don't you care about teaching,
Tucker?" My father said he
did and immediately joined the MAA.
2. When AWT was math chairman from 1952 to 1964, he had the
same 2-course-a-semester teaching load as other tenured faculty at Princeton
(the Dean of the College also taught 2 courses a semester).
In addition, one semester each year he
assigned himself to be the lead professor in the big calculus course that most
Princeton freshmen took. When I
asked him years later when I was a department chair why he assumed this extra
duty, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, "The most important thing the
Princeton Mathematics Department did was to teach freshman calculus, and so as
department chairman it was obvious that I should led that effort." As chair,
AWT felt it was also his job to get to know most of the math majors personally.
I later learned that Dean Eisenhart, who was the
department chair (and Dean of the Faculty) when AWT was a graduate student,
also led the freshman calculus course once a year.
3. As a child I once asked my father how he showed off his
department to visitors (I knew then that the Princeton Mathematics Department
was very famous for its brilliant professors).
He thought a little and replied that he would invite them to
sit in on one of Emil Artin's freshman honors
calculus lectures (Artin was a world famous
algebraist and a great teacher).
NOTE: Princeton used to be famous for enrolling high school
senior class presidents (all-around students), not high school valedictorians.
lectures converted a number of undecided students into mathematics majors and
some into famous mathematicians, such as Hyman Bass.
4. One more story about Artin and
teaching. An influential 1920 national report advocated some efforts at
universities be devoted to research as an end in itself.
Soon afterwards Princeton created two
professorships in mathematics, the Fine Chair, and in mathematical physics, the
Jones Chair, both endowed by the Jones family, with purely research obligations
(no formal teaching required) and which came to be seen as the most prestigious
professorships in the whole university.
Oswald Veblen was the first Fine Chair (von Neumann and Eugene Wigner
shared the first Jones Chair; they alternated years in Princeton and in
Berlin). The next Fine Chair was
When Lefschetz retired, the
mathematics faculty voted to give it to Artin.
AWT loved to tell the story of when, as
department chair, he had the pleasure of inviting Artin
to his office to tell him he would be the next Fine Chair in mathematics.
Instead of looking delighted,
Artin looked concerned
and finally said, "But the Fine
Chair does no teaching. I will not
give up my freshman calculus course and so I must respectfully decline the
honor. AWT consulted with university
lawyers about the exact terms of the Fine Chair endowment and it was decided
that voluntary teaching by a Fine Chair was allowed.
When so informed, Artin accepted
the Fine Chair.
Research and Undergraduate
Teaching are Compatible
1. AWT's initial teaching load at
Princeton in 1933, like that of other Instructors, was 5 courses a semester,
yet he said that this period was the most productive research time in his
life. He had no other University
duties except to teach. He had
typically had about 3 different courses to teach, with multiple sections in
two, and the courses varied little from semester to semester. Classes had 20 to 25 students. He taught in the mornings (six days a
week), with minimal preparation needed; graded homework himself as well as held
office hours in the early afternoon; and from 3 pm on into the night he could
pursue his research uninterrupted.
Future departmental and professional duties and graduate supervision
took up more time throughout the day than the time gained from a reduction in
teaching and grading duties.
2. When AWT was studying for a Master's degree at the
University of Toronto, he was offered a TAship to
teach a course in advanced calculus.
However, when the two MS students offered TAships
dropped out at the last minute, AWT was asked to teach the other TAs' two
courses-- one a brand new course in mathematical economics and the other a
course in PDEs for engineers-- in addition to his own
course, at no increase in salary.
Still, his expanded teaching experience subsequently earned him a part-
time instructorship at Princeton when his application for graduate study was
received too late for a TAship.
Tea at Fine Hall
1. During AWT's last year as a
graduate student, he was asked by Professor Veblen to oversee the creation of a
daily tea around 4pm in the Fine Hall Lounge. Veblen had been in Cambridge the year before and liked the
English tradition of daily tea.
Other graduate students were enlisted to share the duties of making tea
and providing cookies. Over time,
the Fine Hall tea became the center of department life,
and eventually many other U.S. mathematics
departments copied the Fine Hall tea.
When I went to graduate school, my father's only advice was to be sure
to attend tea regularly. The next
vignette explains the hidden meaning of this advice.
through Tea": By the time AWT was chairman, most incoming graduate students
already knew the material in standard first-year graduate courses and
research seminars were the only graduate courses offered.
Students formed informal seminar groups to learn and review the first-
year graduate course content that appeared on the
PhD qualifying exam. I later asked
my father how, without graded graduate courses, the department monitored the
academic progress of students before they was working with a professor on the
thesis. I told him that I knew the
students were very bright but still sometimes even one of these students surely
did not make good progress. AWT
said that from time to time, he took attendance at tea in an informal
fashion. If a student was not regularly at tea talking mathematics with other
students, then AWT or another professor would call the student into their
office and examine the student on what he had been doing mathematically. AWT said, "We never had a problem with
any student who was regularly in mathematical conversations with fellow students
version of a teacher's obligation for his students' welfare.
AWT's father was a minister. Although AWT had enough religion as a
child and never went to church, he treated his students and junior faculty the
way a minister treats his congregation.
In the fall of his second year as a graduate student at Princeton, he
was assigned to teach two sections of the freshman calculus course
and the professor in charge was T.Y.
Thomas. Thomas taught a specially
chosen section of strong students.
The weekly syllabus that Thomas gave to all instructors seemed too fast
to AWT for his students, although he knew that Thomas's class could probably
handle it. AWT complained to
Thomas about this. Thomas
then called a meeting of all the instructors in the course and asked if anyone
else thought the syllabus was too demanding. No one else was willing to. Then
Thomas announced that all TAs commit themselves to follow his syllabus.
My father was the only one who
refused. As AWT knew would happen,
Thomas went to the Dean of the Graduate School to demand that AWT be expelled
for insubordination. A friend of AWT's informed Lefschetz, AWT's advisor, and Lefschetz
spoke to the chairman Eisenhart. After he heard AWT's
side of the story he reassigned AWT to sophomore
calculus sections. When AWT
recounted this story to me when he was retired, I was very moved and asked him,
with all the hurdles he had getting into college and then into Princeton,
where did he find the courage to stand up to Prof. Thomas. His response set a
morale standard that I will always inspire me as a teacher. He said, "As long as I was the
instructor of those students, their academic welfare was paramount to me. Nomatter what the consequences to me, I had to fight for what was
right for them."
1. Great Lefschetz quote: AWT overhears a discussion between Lefschetz and Oscar Zariski in
which Zariski was asking for advice on how to
categorize an algebraic geometry paper submitted to Annals of
Mathematics—should it be classified as algebra or geometry. Lefschetz responded:"If the paper consists of a lot of symbol
manipulation, then it is algebra.
But if there is an idea, then it is geometry."
For more information about the Princeton Mathematics Department, readers
should refer to Oral History of the Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s.
(The oral history covers much of the first half of the 20th century despite
its restrictive title.)
The vignettes on this webpage have been translated into Swedish by Valeria Aleksandrova,
See http://www.pkwteile.de/wissen/awtucker-vinjetter .
And into Portuguese by Artur Weber; see https://www.homeyou.com/~edu/vignettes-awtucker .