Nathan Altshiller Court
Mathematics at the University of Oklahoma

David W. Levy
David Ross Boyd Professor of History
University of Oklahoma

Address to OU Math PhD Alumni Reunion, 1993

Formal instruction in mathematics began at the University of Oklahoma on the morning of September 15, 1892, the day that the school opened for business. There were four original members of the faculty, including the University president, David Ross Boyd. One of those four, William N. Rice, who taught foreign languages, left behind a rather touching description of that first day of class: "Recall the scene on that opening morning in September, 1892, three and a half years after the `run.' Up the stairs of the old stone building come the university students to enroll. All are very quiet, some painfully bashful, and not a few extremely awkward. Most of them are the unspoiled products of pioneer life ... But, best of all, they are in dead earnest and feel they are facing a great opportunity. After a short conference with President Boyd, in which they make known their attainments and deficiencies, he gives them a tentative list of subjects which it is presumed they will be able to pursue successfully." Rice's account of the opening of the University emphasizes the primitive conditions under which the students and faculty began their work: "In comparison with the magnificent plants of older and wealthier states, it seemed a gross exaggeration to call that stone building and its modest contents a university .... No libraries, laboratories, traditions; a toddling present, a hope for the future, but no past."

Since it was, as Rice pointed out, only a few years after the land run of 1889, few high schools had been established in Oklahoma Territory and none of them had yet graduated a single student. To accommodate the situation, President Boyd opened what was called the Preparatory Department--where those without high school degrees could make up their deficiencies. Every single one of that group who marched up the stairs bashfully in 1892 was in the Preparatory Department and that Department was the largest part of the University for many years, being finally phased out around 1910. Naturally, the first mathematics taught at OU was taught in the Preparatory Department and, at best, taught at the high school level.

One sign of the primitive nature of the earliest math instruction at OU was that the fact that the classes that first year were taught, at the most basic level, presumably arithmetic, by the history and civics teacher, Prof. F. S. E. Amos (a sure sign, it has always seemed to me, that history teachers in those days were much bolder than we are today!), and at the higher level, presumably algebra, by the professor of chemistry and physics, the famous Edwin DeBarr, who remained at the University until he was dismissed by the regents in the early 1920s for refusing to cease his political activities, including his work on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan. And if one sign of the primitive nature of early mathematics at OU was the fact that it was taught entirely by amateurs, another was that for the first four or five years the catalogue listed only five or six courses in "Arithmetic" and basic "Algebra."


Between the founding of the University and September of 1916, the story of mathematics at OU is essentially the story of three men. The first time that there was any such thing as a "Department of Mathematics" at the University of Oklahoma was in 1895, when the University, embarking upon its fourth year of instruction, hired its first mathematical specialist, Frederick Stanton Elder. Elder had earned a bachelor's degree at Princeton and was teaching at Parsons College in Iowa. He stayed at OU for ten years and significantly expanded the offerings in mathematics.

The other two mathematicians to write their names into the history of the University before 1916 might be best known around here for their work outside the Department of Mathematics. The first was Samuel Watson Reaves, who replaced Elder as chair of the Department in 1905 and who stayed in Norman for the rest of his life. Like many of the early faculty members in other departments, he came to teach with a bachelor's degree (in his case, with two of them--one from North Carolina and one from Cornell), but went on, while teaching here, to earn his PhD, his being awarded by the University of Chicago. Samuel Reaves chaired and taught in the Department for almost twenty years, but in 1923 he became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and served in that capacity until 1940.

The second name worth mentioning from the days before 1916 is that of Samuel Reaves's disciple, Edgar Meacham. He was a star football player at OU and a graduate of the institution in 1914; Reaves hired him upon his graduation. During the next six years, Meacham took leaves from OU and earned another bachelor's degree from Harvard and then followed his old teacher Reaves to a PhD at Chicago in 1922. And Meacham, once again following his teacher, became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1940, when Reaves retired--or rather returned to do some teaching in the math department.

Elder, Reaves, and Meacham were probably good teachers and fairly able administrators--although Meacham's tenure as dean was characterized by a good deal of controversy. But no one would claim, I think, that they were distinguished mathematicians. In the case of the last two, their interests clearly tended toward university administration rather than to mathematical research. Other teaching in the Department, before 1916, was done by a series of tutors and instructors, almost always plucked from among the talented graduating math majors at OU and serving very brief terms of instruction.

In the spring of 1916, Chairman Reaves got permission from President Stratton Brooks to hire another instructor. On his desk was a letter, dated March 1, from a thirty-five year old instructor at the University of Colorado, whose name was Nathan Altshiller: "Dear Sir: The present is to inquire whether you expect to have a vacancy in your Department of Mathematics for the next Academic year, and if so, to present my candidacy for the position." Altshiller goes on to describe himself. "In Russia [actually what today is Poland], where I was born, I received an education about equivalent in its scope to the A.B. degree of an American college. For several years I was engaged there in teaching in Primary and Secondary schools. The four years, 1907-1911, I spent at the University of Ghent, Belgium, where I received, in July 1911, the degree of "Docteur en Sciences Physiques et Mathematiques" ("avec grande distinction"). During the two Academic years, 1911-1913, I was doing graduate work in Mathematics and Astronomy at Columbia University in the City of New York. At the same time I was Instructor in Mathematics, Extension Department, Columbia University (evening classes ...). In the Fall of 1913 I accepted the position of Instructor in Mathematics at the University of Washington, Seattle, which I held for two years, 1913-1915. Last September I assumed my present duties [as Instructor at Colorado]. I am 35 years old and enjoy perfect health. I am married and have one child. Upon your request I shall furnish further information, as well as serious references. Trusting that you will honor me with an early reply, I remain, Most respectfully yours, N. Altshiller."

Reaves also received two letters of recommendation from Colorado colleagues that may sound a little strange to modern ears. One of them wrote: "His work here has been mostly in undergraduate mathematics, though he is himself well qualified in advanced subjects. He has done this work so finely that I only wish I could make a permanent place for him. As a gentleman, scholar, mathematician, and capable and approved Instructor, you may confidently rely upon him; equally also, as one of your most loyal coworkers. He is in good health, and takes a sane view of life and things. He is a native Russian; but he has mastered our language, speaking fluently and plainly; though, of course, with a foreign accent. He has a wife and one child, both in good health. Yours truly." The other writer felt obliged to point out that "for some ten days the students found it a little difficult to understand his speech, after that they had no difficulty. I have not the slightest difficulty in understanding him." Because the present chair of the Department "expects to retire in about four years, the President desires to secure a man who could become head of the Department, and because Professor Altshiller is a foreigner he might not be suitable.... I think a great deal of Altshiller, and believe him to be a gentleman and a scholar. I heard him in one of the most scholarly addresses we have had here. He seems to me an excellent man, a little unfortunate because of his foreign birth. I suppose he is poor, too, because he lives humbly here, but he ought to do so if he is poor .... As far as I can tell he would be an earnest instructor, and a pleasant man to get along with."

Reaves hired Altshiller as an Instructor (salary: $1000) and the Altshillers moved to Norman to take up the new duties. He taught mathematics at the University of Oklahoma from 1916 until his retirement 35 years later in 1951.


Few now living remember the University of Oklahoma in 1916, when Nathan Altshiller arrived on the campus and all would have trouble recognizing that school as being the embryo of the research university of today. The great event on the campus that fall was the publication of the very first issue of the Oklahoma Daily, the student newspaper that has enjoyed a more or less continuous publication for nearly eight decades. There were 1669 students enrolled, all of them nervous about the war in Europe and whether the United States could stay out of it. There was also, no doubt, a good deal of talk about the election, two months away, and whether Woodrow Wilson could defeat the Republican Charles Evans Hughes and enter upon a second term as President of the United States. Not counting a few small outlying buildings, the campus consisted mainly of the Administration Building, the Carnegie Library on the left of it (as you faced it), the Science Building on the right, Monnett Hall, where the Law School was, and opposite on the north oval, the brand new DeBarr Hall for Chemistry and Physics. There were perhaps 25,000 books in the Library. The Norman faculty consisted of 49 professors, 20 associate professors, and 32 assistants and instructors. At the end of the new math instructor's first academic year, the College of Arts and Sciences would award 120 degrees.

By the time he retired, the Department of Mathematics, to say nothing of the University as a whole, had taken on the shape most of you remember. It hired in the 1920s three of its own students: Dora MacFarland in 1920, John Brixey in 1925, and Eugene Springer in 1926. By the time Springer returned from his year at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Nathan Altshiller was a ten year veteran of the Department, pulling in the handsome salary of exactly $3000. Anyone dropping into the Math Department in 1951 (by this time the thirty-five year veteran was earning $5200), would have seen, walking around the halls, a group of promising young professors (since retired) that included Bill Huff, Harold Huneke, Lloyd Iverson, Gene Levy, Richard Andree, and others. This man, therefore, bridged the transition from the old to the modern in OU's mathematics department and, as it turned out, was a key figure in helping that transition along--although he never held an administrative position at the University of Oklahoma. I propose to devote the rest of my brief account to a consideration of this fascinating, pivotal, and charming man.


It is probably right to say that the campus had never seen anyone quite like Nathan Altshiller. He was not the first foreigner on the faculty--but the others had taught languages or, like Frederik Holmberg, the Fine Arts, where one had more of a right to expect such oddities. He was the first Jew ever hired by the University. He was the first mathematician actually to arrive here with a doctor's degree and the first to achieve a national, even an international reputation for his work. He spoke Russian, Polish, Hebrew, French (which he had once taught), German, and English--he later learned Italian. Both he and his wife Sophie (who was herself sparklingly intelligent and active in many good causes in Norman and the University and who deserves a full discussion in her own right) were both quite "liberal"-- even, by local standards, a tad radical and, at the height of the McCarthy period of the 1950s, the subjects of a quite silly local hunt for evil Communists.

In 1919, he became an American citizen. No doubt he was troubled by the violent anti-German climate of the war years (and there was a good deal of such feeling in Norman) and, although not a German himself he had a German-sounding name and a distinct European accent. There are many versions of what happened that day, but only one by an eye-witness. Emil Kraettli, long time Secretary to the Board of Regents of the University, was a lifelong friend: "I was ... honored to be a witness, with Dr. Reaves ... in the ceremony of his becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1919. After the naturalization ceremony [he] inquired of the judge if it were possible to change his name, something more appropriate as a United States citizen. Dr. Reaves suggested the name of COURT, as a gesture of appreciation to the American Court of Justice. His wife wholeheartedly agreed to the new name by telephone, and so it was thereafter, Nathan Altshiller Court." Thus with a new name and a new country and a new town and a new job, Nathan Court set about his illustrious career. I want to review briefly his achievement as a researcher and as a teacher and then close with a few remarks about his the essential decency and humanity of his character.


Nathan Court wrote three books. The first was his best known, College Geometry, which was published in 1925, translated into many languages including Chinese, becoming the standard text in the subject across the nation. After being in continuous use, without revision, for a quarter century--which, I gather, is something of a world's record--it was revised in 1952. His second book was called Modern Pure Solid Geometry and it appeared in 1935 and was revised in 1964. And a popular work, collecting some earlier pieces, called Mathematics in Fun and in Earnest, appeared in 1958 and was also widely translated. In his sixty years as an active mathematician, Nathan Court published more than a hundred papers in more than a dozen journals. These came from his pen in a steady stream: 6 before 1920; 35 during the 1920s; 23 in the 1930s; 26 in the 1940s; and more than 50 after his retirement. Professor Springer has written that "It is most unusual for a mathematician to produce scholarly works after reaching the age of 70. On the occasion of a departmental dinner at the time of Dr. Court's retirement from his teaching duties ... it was remarked that, unlike most mathematicians of his age, he would probably continue in active research and writing. This he did. Probably his period of greatest production was the 14 years of his so-called retirement ..." This summary of his work does not include dozens of "problems" that he proposed or solved in numerous journals. Through the administrations of six OU presidents, Court would dutifully send reprints of his work to their offices Evans Hall. He would always receive back polite letters like the one from William Bennett Bizzell in 1930: "I wish to thank you for sending me your translation of Brianchon's Theorem. While I confess, I cannot possibly understand it, I must say frankly, that I greatly admire a man who cannot only understand this mathematical theorem, but who has the ability to translate this proposition into English." Springer thought that Nathan Court "was a genius in geometry," and the one person most responsible for "the introduction of a college course in synthetic geometry."

This scholarly output was purchased at the cost of very hard labor. Many friends remember walking by his home on Eufaula St. and seeing him bent over his desk, late into the night, pencil in hand, poring over some geometrical problem. One of his favorite quotations was from Plutarch's biography of Archimedes: "It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations. Some ascribe this to genius, while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlabored results." About Plutarch's observation Court remarked: "For my part I would add that the capacity for `incredible effort and toil' is an integral part of genius. Those endowed with pronounced intellectual or artistic abilities but lacking the capacity for sustained work are `dilettantes,' while hard labor and mediocre gifts produce `plodders' or `work horses.' The mixture of the two essential ingredients ... produce between the two extremes those gifted, able, etc."

In addition to his own published research in geometry, Court took an avid interest in the dispersion of mathematical research. He was an associate editor of the American Mathematical Monthly, the National Mathematics Magazine, and Scripta Mathematica. He also wrote articles and gave talks of a highly thoughtful and non-technical nature. One gets a sense of his commitment to making mathematics accessible by looking at the titles of some of his articles: "Mathematics and Esthetics" (1930); "Democratizing Mathematics" (1941); "Geometry and Experience" (1945); "Mathematics in the History of Civilization" (1948); "Is Mathematics an Exact Science?" (1948); and others. These articles, which even I (in common with the University presidents to whom he sent them and who, for once, could gratefully say that they had read them all the way through) am able to understand, are notable for their thoughtfulness and breadth. The first words of the first lecture in his course on the History of Mathematics (for which his lecture notes survive) are: "The history of mathematics is a part of the history of science, which in turn is a part of the intellectual and cultural history of mankind." One has the sense that his own scholarship was embedded in this understanding of context and that Nathan Court really believed that his work, even his technical work, was a part, however small, of the intellectual and cultural history of mankind.


Nathan Court was a lively and enthusiastic teacher, entirely absorbed by his love of mathematics. He naively expected OU undergraduates to share this love and he very quickly gained the reputation of being a stern and demanding instructor. One of his favorite stories about himself concerned a World War I veteran returning to the University in 1919, shortly after Professor Altshiller had become a citizen. Ruth David, another friend of the Courts, recalls hearing the story this way: "One day during enrollment at the University a student arrived at his desk and said he had to take Geometry I. `No problem,' said Court. `We have plenty of room.' Then he noticed that the student seemed uneasy and concerned and asked if there was some difficulty. The student shyly explained that he had heard that Professor Altshiller was very hard and would he please put him in someone else's section. At this point in the story Nathan's eyes would twinkle and his lips would suppress a smile and he would lean over and say I told him, `Don't you worry for one minute. I'll put you in Court's class!'"

In 1945, when Court was earning $3300, he was denied a raise. He appealed the decision to President Cross, who turned the matter over to a Committee established to advise on such cases. The Committee wrote to Cross: "Dr. Court should establish a better relationship with some of his students in order to merit an increase in salary." And Cross added a personal note: "I believe the Committee feels that you too frequently use sarcasm as a part of your classroom procedure, and that the students have complained of this during the past few years."

Harold Huneke, David Ross Boyd Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University, who had a long and affectionate relationship with Court as a student and then a colleague, remembered that he and some of the younger instructors were asked to prepare a skit on the occasion of Court's retirement--a task which was not easy, Huneke remembered, because not all the stories about him were complimentary. Huneke with his usual tact wrote that Dr. Court's sections were not always the first ones to fill up during enrollment.

No doubt the awe and fear in which some students held Court had to do with the persistent comparison between him and Albert Einstein which was part of the University's lore. In part the comparison was caused by a clear physical resemblance between the two men, and there were apparently more than a few undergraduates who thought that Albert Einstein was on the faculty here. Prof. Huff remembers that "A good many students who did not know Court confused him with Einstein. Indeed as recently as last summer [1993] a chap from Lawton told me he was at OU when Einstein was a professor here. I was once asked in class if Einstein was in residence and when I explained it was Court, the student replied, `Well, they both go to the same barber.'"

If Nathan Court caused some trepidation and consternation in some mediocre undergraduates, the reaction of good students was quite a different story. John Brixey has written: "I first knew Dr. Court as one of his College Geometry students in 1922. At that time he was in the process of writing and developing his world famous text. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. He would come into the classroom eyes sparkling through his thick glasses and bubbling over with enthusiasm for the material he was working on and wished you to enjoy. Students used to say `avoid the first two rows of chairs' for they thought his enthusiasm sometimes became a bit juicy. I can see him step away from the blackboard when he reached a point which he wished the student to think about before giving the final conclusion--then tugging at his hair and suddenly saying 'well' he would step back to the blackboard crashing and shattering his chalk at a point on the board as he completed his theorem." Brixey compared Court to eating potato chips: one course with him was never enough. And it is likely that Court would have gotten his raise if more OU students had been like John Brixey.


Having said a word or two about his research and a word or two about his teaching, and approaching the end of my time, I feel that I have not been quite able to capture the essence of the man or to convey what he meant to his many loyal friends. Let a baby be born anywhere in Norman and Sophie and Nathan Court were the first visitors, bearing little gifts. Let a young professor arrive on the campus, friendless and alone, and the Courts would be the first to have him to dinner. Their backyard hotdog roasts were famous for their gaiety; evenings in his living room were famous for the breadth of the conversation-- Nathan Court loved music and had an enormous record collection and was known frequently to break into song; he knew politics and discussed world affairs; he read literature constantly and had strong opinions. The Courts never missed a concert or a play and probably never attended a football game. His memory was legendary. He was, in short, a cultured, gentle, generous, scholarly, beloved citizen of his time at this place. Professor Springer called him "a man of great kindness and deep sensitivity. . . a man with a warm and generous heart, who was always in sympathy with the weak and underprivileged." Professor of Physics Jens Rud Nielsen wrote that "in spite of our very different backgrounds, and 13 years age difference, Nathan was my closest and oldest friend in Norman ... He was always cheerful and ready to joke. But he took a keen and serious interest in all public affairs, University, state and world. He followed everything and subjected all events to a vigorous logical analysis." "His tousled hair spread in as many directions as his extraordinarily curious mind," wrote former President of the University Joseph Brandt, "but if the hair was not disciplined, his mind was."

Many stories and anecdotes and personal testimonies survive and it is difficult to know which one to choose to end this talk. So I have chosen two. The first comes from President George Lynn Cross: "When Mrs. Cross and I moved with our family to the President's home, our younger child, Bill, then seven years of age, found the neighborhood a bit dreary--there were no children around with whom to play ... In an effort to compensate for the lack of younger companionship Bill would try to visit with the older people who passed the President's home--often without too much success. One day, however, he came into the house with a most pleased expression on his face and his mother asked him what he had been doing. He reported that he had `been talking to the nice man with the steel wool hair.' His parents understood immediately whom he meant by this. Bill soon learned that Dr. Court passed the President's home daily and at nearly the same time each afternoon. It became his habit to wait for his friend in the yard and on several occasions I watched through the living room window the conversations the two had together and the kindly dignified way in which Dr. Court carried on his part of the conversation ... In later years Bill was to remark that Dr. Court resembled Albert Einstein very much. Our family agreed that this was true--that the resemblance was intellectual as well as physical."

Finally, in 1935, upon the publication of his book Modern Pure Solid Geometry, his friend in the English Department, Benjamin Botkin, soon to become a world famous folklorist, wrote an affectionate poem in honor of the book and its author. The poem, which Court treasured for the rest of his life, took the title of Court's book, "Modern, Pure, and Solid."

It takes more than optometry
To make me see through geometry
Whether its solid or plane,
To me it's all vain.

But of one thing I'm sure,
If it's modern and pure,
In art, science, or morals,
I'll bestow on it laurels.

How to be modern and how to be pure
Is the moralist's woe and the artist's lure.
The purest of moderns are apt to be squalid,
But not your geometry modern and solid.

Said Macmillan,
"Are you willin'--
Pure and solid with us, Nathan
Pure and solid as our faith in
Pure and solid?" Answered Court,
"Pure and solid I am for't."

Pure and solid is our forte.
Solid be his sales report.
Pure and solid be the sport
Of making books for Nathan Court.

For tho modern and obscure,
We're still solid and still pure.

July 20, 1993 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nathan Court's death of a heart attack at the age of 87. It is doubly fitting, therefore, that we take this moment to remember this extraordinary and gifted man.

To the Section History To the N.A. Court Lectures

updated 7/30/2013