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Fine, Henry Burchard, Class of 1880

Photograph, unknown date

Photograph, unknown date

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Source: Ward Clemence White, Find-a-Grave

Henry Burchard Fine (1858 – 1928), Class of 1880, played a critical role in modernizing the American university and raising American mathematics from “from a state of approximate nullity to one verging on parity with the European nations”. Oswald Veblen’s obituary tribute accurately described Fine’s role both in training American mathematicians to provide international leadership to this field and in building Princeton University’s reputation in mathematics and science. Fine’s role in creating a world class Mathematics Department and mathematical physics program led to making Princeton the site of Albert Einstein’s first North American lectures, and eventually his home.

Fine began his time as a Princeton undergraduate studying Greek and Latin, but a mathematics tutor, George B. Halstead, convinced him to switch his considerable talents to mathematics. He ranked first academically in his Class of 1880 for all four years, catching the attention of President James McCosh. As a result, Fine was among a small group of highly talented undergraduates whom McCosh invited to his house for informal seminars and nurtured as future faculty.

After graduation, Fine remained at Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) for a post-graduate year followed by three years as a tutor. Then, as German was the leading center of mathematics scholarship, he went to the University of Leipzig to study mathematics under Felix Klein, earning his PhD in one year.

He returned to Princeton as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics in 1885 and soon established himself a leading faculty member and was named the Dod Professor of Mathematics in 1898. In addition, his reputation beyond Princeton grew through publications and his role as one of the founding members of the American Mathematical Society. However, it was reviving his undergraduate friendship with Woodrow Wilson (Class of 1879) that led to his subsequent impact on Princeton and American scholarship. Fine (Class of 1880) assisted him as a junior and then succeeded him as Managing Editor of the Princetonian, the campus’ student newspaper. When Wilson joined the Princeton faculty in 1890 their relationship resumed, beginning a close and consequential lifelong friendship.

After McCosh’s retirement in 1888, the College of New Jersey’s new President, Francis Landey Patton, was satisfied to preside over what he called ‘the best country club’ in the country. However, the young faculty whom McCosh had nurtured, including Fine, and their allies on the Board of Trustees grew restive and pushed him out in favor of Wilson in 1902.

Wilson quickly chose Fine to be his right-hand man as the Dean of the College. They set about transforming Princeton by raising academic standards, revising the curriculum, and replacing several senior faculty members. Wilson also convinced the Trustees to hire 50 new young faculty members whom he called ‘preceptors’. The addition of this large number of enthusiastic junior faculty had a significant impact on the academic quality, focus, and seriousness of Princeton at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels.

Because Wilson lacked interest in science and mathematics, he delegated the preceptor appointments to Fine, giving him the opportunity to transform Princeton’s programs in those fields. Fine proved to have an extraordinary ability to identify talented young individuals in these fields and a commitment to promoting their careers. His initial preceptorial appointments all went on to become respected mathematicians and when some vacancies developed, he replaced them with similar young talent. He also recruited established American and European mathematicians. By 1911, Princeton’s Department of Mathematics ranked as one of the top three in America and had become the home of the prestigious Annals of Mathematics.

In addition, Fine jump-started Princeton’s weak science departments by recruiting some leading scientists, including mathematical physicist James Jeans, physicist Owen Wilnans Richardson, and biologist Edwin Grant Conklin. Fine also nurtured younger scientists, most importantly astronomer Henry Norris Russell.

As Dean of the Faculty Fine increasingly focused on administration and the controversies that eventually dragged down the Wilson presidency. He and Wilson won one battle, gaining control of the Graduate School from Wilson’s archenemy, Andrew Fleming West. While ceremonial leadership remained with West, Fine became the dominant force in turning Princeton into a leading research university.

However, Wilson lost his attempt to reduce the influence of Princeton’s undergraduate ‘eating clubs’ and to have the Graduate College constructed in the middle of campus. When Wilson left to enter politics, Fine became acting president in all but name, while also serving as President of the American Mathematical Society. Although Fine had loyally supported Wilson’s losing proposals and was a leading candidate to become president, he then loyally supported President John Grier Hibben for the rest of his career.

Under Hibben, Fine became in reality what he had long been, Dean of the Departments of Science, a position he held until his death 1928. He remained deeply loyal Princeton, turning down offers of the presidencies of M.I.T. and Johns Hopkins as well as Wilson’s offer to name him Ambassador to Germany and to the Federal Reserve Board.

Fine continued teaching, publishing leading textbooks and occasional articles, and building his departments. The Department of Mathematics’ prestige led, in 1921, to it hosting Albert Einstein’s first American lectures. In the 1920s, Fine was particularly successful in raising money from the General Education Board and Rockefeller Foundation to support Princeton’s growing science programs. As a consequence, in the 1920s only the University of Chicago attracted more National Research Council Fellowships and no Princeton application was rejected.

In addition to his duties as Dean of Science, Fine served on numerous campus committees, especially chairing the Board of Athletic Control. In the community he served on and chaired the Board of Education for many years.

His final gift to Princeton and mathematics was a consequence of his tragic death. His sister had founded Miss Fine’s School and his brother founded Princeton Preparatory School. Bicycling to visit the latter on a dark December evening in 1928 he was struck and killed by a car. In response, his close friend and wealthy Princeton Trustee, Thomas D. Jones, funded construction of Fine Hall, arguably the finest mathematics building in the country. When cost overruns occurred, Jones response was "nothing is too good for Harry Fine." [Princeton Alumni Weekly, Oct. 30, 1931] Finished in 1931, Fine Hall also served as the first home of the new Institute of Advanced Study, and its most distinguished faculty member, Albert Einstein, until its separate building was completed in 1939. The Institute’s first faculty member, and the person who convinced the funders to situate the IAS in Princeton, was Oswald Veblen, one of Fine’s original preceptors.

Although he spent his entire career at one institution, Fine’s career is an important chapter in the rise of the American research university to world leadership. Whereas he had been drawn to Germany for his PhD in the 1880s, shortly after his death, Princeton University and the Institute of Advanced Study surpassed Göttingen as the world’s center of mathematical physics. And he had played a major role in that transformation.

W. Bruce Leslie ‘66

John M. Hart ‘66

James Parmentier ‘66