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03. Luther Eisenhart

Photograph, 1933

Photograph, 1933

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Luther Pfahler Eisenhart (1876-1965) contributed to Princeton’s development in many ways: as mathematician, teacher, chairman of his department; as chairman of the Committee on Scientific Research, dean of the faculty, dean of the Graduate School; and as father of the four-course plans.

Born in York, Pennsylvania, Eisenhart was graduated in 1896 from Gettysburg College where he excelled in baseball and mathematics. He completed all of his mathematics courses the college gave by the end of his sophomore year and spent his last two years studying mathematical problems on his own under the general guidance of his professor. This experience, he said later, gave him the idea for the four-course plan. He went on to graduate study at the Johns Hopkins University, where he found the emphasis on study and research and the low priority given to rules and restrictions congenial and stimulating.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1900, Eisenhart was called to Princeton by President Patton as instructor in mathematics. He soon earned a reputation as a stimulating teacher and in 1905 was selected by Woodrow Wilson to be one of the original preceptors. He also made his mark as one of the elite group of promising young mathematicians brought together and nurtured by Dean Fine, and rose to the rank of full professor in 1909 when he was only thirty-three.

In 1925, following Eisenhart's work on the early development of the four-course plan, President Hibben chose him as dean of the faculty. Four years later, after Dean Fine's death, Eisenhart was also appointed chairman of the Committee on Scientific Research, named Dod Professor of Mathematics, and made chairman of the department. Eisenhart's continuation of the work begun by Fine brought Princeton to a preeminent place among the world's centers for mathematical study and prepared the way for the outstanding scientific contribution the University was able to make to the national effort in World War II. In the interregnum between the Hibben and Dodds presidencies, Eisenhart bore a major share of administrative responsibility. In 1933 President Dodds named him dean of the Graduate School.

Eisenhart's world renown as a creative mathematician, as summed up by his former student and colleague, Professor Albert W. Tucker, "stemmed from his fundamental publications in differential geometry and tensor analysis -- an area spotlighted in the 1920s by Einstein's general theory of relativity. His greatest work was probably his Riemannian Geometry (Princeton University Press, 1926). After retirement he continued to publish with undiminished zest. His bibliography spans a period of over sixty years, during which time vast changes occurred in the area of mathematics in which he worked. Some of these changes he initiated, some he accepted, and some he ignored -- but always he pushed steadily forward, consistently loyal to this chosen area of research."

As a teacher, Eisenhart was a skilled practitioner of his own dictum that "teaching methods . . . must be designed to encourage independence and self-reliance, to evoke curiosity, and stimulate the imagination and creative impulse." His students recall that sometimes he would have to ask many questions before the student at the blackboard finally got the point, but then Eisenhart's "That's it! That's the way to do it!" always made the student feel that he himself had made the discovery.


Eisenhart's opportunity to introduce the four-course plan came in the early 1920s when President Hibben appointed a subcommittee of the Course of Study Committee to consider the question of reinstating honors courses, which had been discontinued during World War I. These honors courses, begun soon after the adoption of the preceptorial method in 1905, had never attracted many students, and the enrollment had been steadily dropping in the years before the war. Eisenhart persuaded the committee and then President Hibben, who in turn persuaded the faculty, to adopt a radical and more ambitious plan that "sought to elevate the plane of endeavor and attainment of the whole undergraduate body rather than to provide honors courses for a comparatively few students."

Under the new plan, every upperclass candidate for the A.B. would take four courses, instead of five as formerly, two of which would be in his field of concentration or department. In the free time made available to him by the reduction of the course load, the student would engage in independent study and, in his senior year, write a thesis on a subject of his own choosing. At the end of the senior year, he would take a written comprehensive examination on selected topics in his field of concentration. Honors would be awarded on the basis of this examination and the thesis combined.

Eisenhart's four-course plan was remarkable both for the emphasis it placed on independent study and for its support of the principle that honors at graduation should be open to all students and not just to a restricted group. This later provision was the most controversial feature of the plan. It was also the one in which Eisenhart believed most strongly. He insisted that grades made in underclass years did not constitute a reliable test of a student's ability to qualify for honors, and that, on the contrary, the capacity for intellectual achievement frequently did not become evident until a student had been allowed to function freely on his own in his chosen area of concentration. Eisenhart would cite with relish the instances of students who, after receiving mediocre grades in underclass years, found their interest aroused by independent work in upperclass years and had gone on to graduate with honors. At the same time, he held that it was not essential to win honors in order to derive benefit from the four-course plan. "The real test of an educational process," he said, "is what is becoming of the student as he proceeds with his education -- how he is being prepared to continue his education and become an educated man."

Eisenhart had to contend with apathy and some opposition in the early days of the four-course plan. Many faculty members lacked enthusiasm for the new plan; it required more time and effort on their part, and some thought Eisenhart too optimistic about the level of work that could be expected of undergraduates. President Hibben, however, backed the plan wholeheartedly and threw the full weight of his influence into persuading the faculty to give it a fair trial. A number of the undergraduates felt that the plan was too specialized and even more thought it too hard. The spring after the plan became effective with the Class of 1925 at the beginning of their junior year, the Class of 1924 signified their luck in escaping the "misfortune" by wearing horseshoes on their beer jackets; the next year the Class of 1925 jacket showed a tiger crushed under four massive tomes. And when, in 1927, the seniors sang about Eisenhart on the steps of Nassau Hall, it was mostly in fun but a trifle in earnest:

"Luther Pfahler Eisenhart,

Efficient from the very start;

But he's condemned in the eyes of man

For originating the four-course plan."

Skeptical alumni questioned whether the plan was appropriate for undergraduates. A number of them reported that the impression had been circulated among schoolboys that the four-course plan was burdensome, that it left undergraduates insufficient time for the usual college activities, that while it might benefit those who wished to devote their lives to academic pursuits, it was not suitable for others. These reports, coming as they did during a low period in Princeton's football fortunes, were accompanied by the further suggestion that schoolboys who were good at games were tending to look to other colleges. These discussions came to a head in the fall of 1930 and resulted in the Alumni Council's appointment of a committee to study the matter.

Eisenhart proposed that alumni who had had experience with the plan be asked their opinion of its value. A letter sent to graduates from 1925 through 1930 brought back a favorable response and concrete evidence from men in many different occupations that the plan was accomplishing what Eisenhart had promised it would. In support of his cherished belief in the stimulating effect of independent study, Eisenhart marshalled impressive figures: of the 1016 men in the Classes of 1925 through 1930 who had won honors at graduation, 17 had been fifth groupers as sophomores, 167 fourth groupers, 407 third groupers. His answer to the charge that the four-course plan was making study at Princeton too difficult was that the percentage of undergraduates dropped for scholastic reasons in 1929-1930 was the lowest it had been in twenty-five years.

The Alumni Council eventually turned in a favorable report on the four-course plan. In the natural course of events Princeton's football fortunes improved, and reports of schoolboy fears were no longer heard. In his later years Eisenhart had the satisfaction of knowing not only that the four-course plan had won general acceptance but that most Princetonians had come to regard the senior thesis, the capstone of independent study, as the most valuable element in their undergraduate education.*

In accomplishing all that he did, Eisenhart made effective use of his time -- even the briefest moments. More important, he appeared never to waste energy giving vent to anger or frustration. He viewed human foibles with dry humor but without sarcasm, never indulging in arguments ad hominem; ideas were what concerned him. He was always receptive to questions and criticisms; and whether they came from faculty colleague or trustee, freshman or alumnus, Eisenhart would hear his critic out and then try to bring him around to his point of view, usually ending the demonstration of his proposition with a wrinkled smile and a persuasively urgent "Isn't that it? Isn't that it?"

Eisenhart served as president of the American Mathematical Society and of the American Association of Colleges, as vice president of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. He became the executive officer of the American Philosophical Society in 1942 and continued to supervise its affairs long after his retirement from Princeton in 1945, commuting to Philadelphia once or twice a week through his eighty-fourth year.

At his death, his faculty colleagues said that "in two centuries of Princeton’s history few scholars had done more to shape the future of the University" and the trustees declared that he had "earned an enduring place in the front rank: of those who had made Princeton great.”

A portrait of Dean Eisenhart hangs in Procter Hall of the Graduate College. The Eisenhart Arch given in his honor by an anonymous donor in 1951 marks the western approach to the Graduate College from Springdale Road.

*The Eisenhart ideal of indepedent study received additional emphasis beginning in 1967; thereafter, each undergraduate working for the A.B. was required to take only four courses a term during freshman and sophomore as well as junior year and three during senior year.

Source: Leitch p. 154 ff

Additional References:

National Academy of Sciences: Luther Pfahler Eisenhart 1876-1965, A Biographical Memoir by Solomon Lefschetz

Wikipedia entry

Profile by University of St. Andrews School of Mathematics

Princeton University Library resources