LSU College of Science
LSU  | Mathematics

History of the Department - from the 1998-1999 Program Review Self-Study

I. Brief history

Louisiana State University has existed in some form since 1806. In 1853, the Louisiana General Assembly established the ”Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy” near Pineville, Louisiana. This institution opened in 1860 with Col. (soon to be Gen.) William Tecumseh Sherman as Superintendent. Because of the Civil war, the school closed in 1861, reopened in 1862 and closed again in 1863. The Seminary reopened in 1865 with Col. David Boyd, who taught mathematics, as Superintendent. The college burned in October 1869 and reopened in November 1869 in Baton Rouge. In 1870, the name of the seminary was changed to Louisiana State University.

In those early days, there were no clear lines between departments. Engineers taught mathematics classes. Two names stand out from this early period: Samuel Lockett and James Nicholson. Lockett, a mathematics/engineering professor and commandant of the University, is famous for the design of the Confederate fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi and as head of the team that erected the Statue of Liberty. He taught several mathematics classes. Our current building, Lockett Hall, is named in his honor. His only known mathematical “publication” was in the LSU student newspaper!

James Nicholson [1869-1917] was a Sergeant during the Civil War, but rose to the rank of Colonel after the war. He was largely self-taught as a mathematician. He published a paper in the inaugural issue of The American Mathematical Monthly. He served as chair of the Mathematics Department for several years. He was also twice president of LSU. Nicholson Hall, which now houses the Physics Department, was for many years the home of the Mathematics Department. The Nicholson Professorship in Mathematics was created by the LSU Board of Supervisors in honor of Professor Nicholson.

Louisiana State University began the move to the site of the present campus in 1925. At this time, the Mathematics Department had a faculty member nicknamed "Frock" Sanders. He got this name because he always wore a long frock (split-tailed) coat when teaching his classes. The story is that his students said he wore the coat to hide his devil‘s tail!

In the period 1920-1945, the Mathematics Department had two well-known mathematicians on the faculty: Lyle Smith and L. Parker. Smith is still famous as the "second-half” of Moore-Smith convergence. Smith and Parker founded the Mathematics Magazine which was published for several years at LSU. Parker was chair of the Department leaving in the late forties to become Chair at Auburn. During these years, the Department had several people who were writing text-books. Many of these texts achieved international circulation. Paul Rees, now 98 and going strong, wrote several books during this period, which, after suitable changes, revisions and updates, are still in print in several languages.

Luther Wade, who received his mathematical training at Duke University, was hired by LSU in 1948 as head of the Mathematics Department, with the understanding that he was to build a Mathematics Department with a strong research component. He accepted a monumental task. At the time, there was only one faculty member in the Mathematics Department with a history of research, and he had stopped doing research some years before. Moreover, mathematicians from the Ivy League schools and other eminent universities were reluctant to move south.

Drawing on his experiences and acquaintances from stays at Brown and the Institute for Advanced Study, Professor Wade was able to hire two Ph.D.’s from Princeton, one from Harvard, one from Yale, one from the California Institute of Technology, one from the University of Wisconsin and one from George Washington University in St. Louis, all with strong research credentials. Professor Wade accomplished this miraculous transformation in just five years!

In the next few years, the Department continued to add new faculty. During the decade of the 50’s, the Department hired Richard Anderson and Pasquale Porcelli. Both became Boyd Professors, LSU’s highest professorial rank. The Department also hired Hubert Butts, who became Alumni Professor, and many others who helped lead the department into the 60‘s and beyond. Professor Anderson, still very active in mathematics education in Louisiana and across the United States, won the international Bolzano Prize for his work in topology and is a former President of the Mathematical Association of America and a former Vice-President of the American Mathematical Society. Professor Porcelli was especially known for his work with graduate students, producing two Sloan Fellows and a Pierce Scholar (Harvard). His death in 1972 was a huge loss to the Department.

By 1960, the Mathematics Department was a very active research department with a core of excellent graduate students. Many of these students went on to active research careers in Mathematics and administrative careers in higher education. Several are still serving in these capacities.

In 1964-65. the National Science Foundation started a program to identify ”centers of excellence” in mathematics and science and made large research grants to these selected universities. In 1965, LSU received ”centers-of-excellence“ grants for Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Geology. In the short span of sixteen years, the Mathematics Department was transformed from a department with no research at all into a "center of excellence” - a remarkable achievement. The center-of-excellence grant provided funding for raises, additional hires, and international conferences. One of these international conferences firmly established LSU as the world’s leader in the area of mathematics known then as Infinite-Dimensional Topology.

In the 1960’s, the University created the Nicholson Professorship of Mathematics, held by Pierre Conner until his retirement in 1998.

Professor Wade began the practice, still followed in the Department, of hiring to our strengths. Dr. Wade remained Department Head and Professor of Mathematics until 1978. His tenure as head yielded remarkable growth, not only in numbers of faculty, but also in prestige of the Department. The Mathematics Department received particular praise for its research and Ph.D. program from reviewers during the external review of the Department in 1977-78.

The Department’s growth continued into the 1980’s. In the 1982 National Research Council survey, the LSU Mathematics Department scored 2.69 and ranked 50th out of 112 schools considered.

From 1981 until 1994, Bela Bollobas maintained a joint appointment between LSU and Cambridge University. It was his custom to bring some of his graduate students from Cambridge when he came to LSU. These students took graduate courses and taught in the Department as graduate teaching assistants. On two occasions his student, Timothy Gowers, came to LSU. Dr. Gowers finished his thesis at Cambridge under the supervision of Professor Bollobas. Dr. Gowers was one of the four winners of the 1998 Fields Medal, the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

If the 1960‘s brought us ”center-of-excellence” status, the late 1980’s and early nineties brought tougher times. Severe budget cuts crippled the University. The Mathematics Department lost several tenure-track lines and faculty salaries fell well below national norms. We still have not recovered these lines and faculty salaries continue to lag. Nonetheless we coped, and tried our best to maintain our strong commitment to undergraduate and graduate education. The Department is deservedly proud of its work at the graduate level with minority students, especially African-American students. Currently we have three promising African-American students working toward the Ph.D. Even with the budget cuts, the Department's national and international reputation for research and scholarship remains quite good. but with room for improvement. In the 1995 National Research Council survey, the LSU Mathematics Department scored 2.74 and tied for 69th place out of the 139 schools considered.

The Department’s doctoral program draws strength from the diverse research groups represented among our faculty. Students earning Ph.D.’s work with faculty in algebraic number theory/quadratic forms/k-theory, algebraic geometry/commutative algebra, algebraic topology/knot theory, combinatorics/graph theory/matroids, differential equations/control theory/optimization, harmonic analysis/Lie groups, probability/stochastic processes, and semigroups. Recently, we added an associate professor in numerical analysis and modeling. We have also begun broadening our course offerings to link more closely with other science and engineering disciplines.

Since its inception in 1956, the Doctoral program in Mathematics at LSU has graduated 185 Ph.D.’s; 47 of these students graduated during the period 1990-1997.

With new State leadership, the University’s budget looks better and more predictable. Anticipating that new funds will filter to the Mathematics Department, we look forward to adding tenure-track lines and increasing salaries to national norms. This will enable us to hire faculty in our traditional areas of strength and to build new areas. The Department expects to revamp the Mathematics undergraduate curriculum and offer several new concentrations, including actuarial science.

Assuming that funding becomes a reality. the future looks bright.