Eisenhart and Coble: Gettysburg grads who became math legends

Of the 134 students attending the College in 1895, two would become the president of one of the world's most important academic societies

Read an abridged version of an article written by Prof. Darren Glass, chair of the Department of Mathematics, for "Notices of the American Mathematical Society."

As of 2012, 61 people had held the office of the president of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Of these, 10 received undergraduate degrees from Harvard and another five from Columbia University. Five schools have had three alumni apiece go on to serve as AMS president, and none of the schools would surprise you—Princeton, Yale, Cambridge, Texas, and Chicago. But three more schools have had two alumni each become AMS president: MIT, Wesleyan University, and yes, Gettysburg College.

Two Gettysburg College alumni served as back-to-back presidents of the AMS, Luther Pfahler Eisenhart in 1931-32 and Arthur Byron Coble in 1933-34. They graduated from Gettysburg, then known as Pennsylvania College, a year apart, with Eisenhart one of the 16 members of the Class of 1896 and Coble one of the 26 members of the Class of 1897. In other words, of the 134 students who were attending Gettysburg College in 1895, two of them would become the president of one of the most important academic societies in the world.

Eisenhart: Destined for greatness
EisenhartEisenhart, born Jan. 13, 1876, was the grandson of Elizabeth Schmucker, whose brother, Samuel Simon Schmucker, founded Gettysburg College. Eisenhart enrolled in 1892 and was active in all aspects of college life, including the Philomathean Literary Society, Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and baseball team. He was awarded the Muhlenberg Freshman Prize, tied with another student for the Baum Prize, which is “given to the student showing the greatest proficiency in mathematics through his or her sophomore year,” and delivered the valedictory for the Class of 1896.

Eisenhart went on to attend Johns Hopkins, where he received a doctoral degree. In fall 1900, Eisenhart was appointed as an instructor of mathematics at Princeton University, a position that earned $800 per year, and five years later he was accorded the rank of assistant professor when Woodrow Wilson, the president of the university, began a preceptorship program. Eisenhart’s love for teaching propelled him to teach courses every term during the 45 years he spent at the university without a single sabbatical. In 1925, Eisenhart, a model faculty member who excelled in research, teaching, and governance, became dean of the faculty at Princeton and one of the founding members of the Middle States Commission.

His scholarly endeavors in differential geometry were strongly influenced by the work of Albert Einstein on general relativity. His books, Reimannian Geometry and Non-Remannian Geometry, became the standard references in the field. Professionally, he was twice asked to sit on committees established by the National Academy of Sciences to give reports to Congress. He became a Trustee of Gettysburg College in 1907, received honorary degrees in 1921 and 1926, and was a top contender for the College presidency in 1910.

In 1937, Eisenhart was named Officer of the Order of the Crown of Belgium by King Leopold III and, after he “retired,” he published nearly 30 additional papers, including a series of papers on a unified theory of general relativity of gravitation and electromagnetism.

Coble: From no-name to math namesake
CobleArthur Byron Coble, born Nov. 3, 1878, arrived at Gettysburg College in fall 1893 and roomed with his older brother, Charles, in a room near that of Eisenhart in Pennsylvania Hall. Coble was not the standout student like Eisenhart and did not win any awards during his time at the College. When the Baum Prize was awarded, he was neither the winner nor among the six students receiving honorable mention.

In 1898, he was admitted to Johns Hopkins and began to take classes alongside Eisenhart. After receiving his Ph.D., Coble spent a year teaching at the University of Missouri before returning to Johns Hopkins to teach until 1918, when he accepted a full professorship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to continue his research in algebraic geometry. During his career Coble published 20 papers in algebraic geometry and had 30 students receive Ph.D.’s under his direction.

In 1893, the AMS had started a series of meetings where prominent mathematicians were invited to give a series of talks on the topic of their choosing, which would then be written up and published as part of the Colloquium Publications series. The list of speakers reads like a who’s who of American mathematicians from the early-20th Century. Both Coble and Eisenhart were featured in the series, with Coble’s lectures published as volume 10 of the AMS Colloquium Publications series in 1928 under the title Algebraic Geometry and Theta Functions, a book that has become another standard in the field.

Today, many objects in algebraic geometry are associated with Coble’s name due to his work, including a Coble curve and Coble hypersurfaces. As the head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Illinois from 1934 until his retirement in 1947, the department saw tremendous growth, with the graduate program tripling in size. In 1933, Coble was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Gettysburg College.

Read Glass' article, Coble and Eisenhart: Two Gettysburgians Who Led Mathematics.

About the author
Prof. Darren Glass joined the Gettysburg College faculty in fall 2005 after spending three years on the faculty of Columbia University. Before that he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University. His research interests include Number Theory, Cryptography, and Galois Theory.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Mike Baker, assistant director of communications, 717.337.6521.

Posted: Thu, 13 Jun 2013

Next on your reading list

14 reasons to LOVE Gettysburg College

Troy Datcher ’90: “When you see injustice, do something about it”

1/3 of your life is spent at work

Share this story: