History of the Math Department | Department of Mathematics

History of the Math Department

My recollections of the Mathematics Department at the University of North Texas as of 2000 -- a partial history by John Ed Allen

Note: If the reader sees corrections to be made in this document, please let me know at jana.watkins@unt.edu. Thanks!

Mathematics has been a part of the curriculum ever since the University was established in 1890. In the early years, the faculty was not departmentalized with department chairs, but consisted simply of faculty who taught courses in their area of expertise. Faculty taught five classes each semester, and each class met five hours per week. The third president of the school, William Herschel Bruce, was a mathematics teacher. He became the president in 1906 and served for 17 years in that post, guiding the university through its formative years, implementing an administrative style that would be carried forward even to the present day: "I was elected President in October, 1906. At the first meeting of the faculty, I told them I wished them to know my vision. . . At the conclusion of the statement of my dream or vision, Professor Borden of the faculty said, "You must expect to live a hundred years!" I replied, "Not necessarily; but even if this should not be accomplished in my lifetime, we could prepare the way for our successors to realize what we plan." [from James L. Rogers' The Story of North Texas, page 52] Even now the faculty and students build "for " the future as they build "on" the past.

Departments with department chairs came into being in the late teens and twenties. Mr. Olin Millican (1906-1999), who gave a $100,000 endowment to establish the Millican Lecture Series for the Mathematics Department, completed his degree here in mathematics in the late twenties. He and I visited often. And he always spoke very kindly of his mathematics teachers. I recall that he talked about going to see "Dad Peters" for advice on which courses to take. But the earliest firm recollection of a department chair by those now living was Dr. Eugene Harold Hanson, who served as chair from 1935 until about 1957.

The story of how Mr. Millican began to make sizable contributions to the department may be of interest to some. It was in the early eighties that the department began receiving annual contributions from him, and the first included a letter in which he indicated that he wanted the funds be used to help students function more proficiently with numbers in real life. He told of having gone to the store to make a purchase, and the electronic register was not working. The clerk could not compute the sales tax and could not make change. He wished that all persons have an ability to be independent and confident in dealing with numbers. Later he became interested in our graduate program, and modified the intent of the fund (given in memory of his brother Roy McLeod Millican, a former high school math teacher) to support visiting lecturers. Mr. Millican was first cousins with the famous Whyburn brothers who studied with R. L. Moore and H. S. Wall at the University of Texas. Mr. Millican, who at the time was in his eighties, would reminisce about his cousins coming home and talking about point sets and topology and this seemed really neat to him!

The common thread or main stream which the Mathematics Department has followed since the very early years, and especially since the thirties, has been the recognition of the value and importance of research. Beginning in the early 1930's, Dr. Hansen persuaded the university librarian to begin subscribing to some of the world's finest research journals in mathematics. So that by the sixties and seventies, the library's journal holdings in mathematics was one of the finest in the country. Visitors from other more well-known institutions would find here what they could not find at their own libraries, and they were delighted. Even though the teaching load was fifteen hours per semester as late as 1964, research in mathematics was being accomplished by some of the faculty. Perhaps the most notable for research publications in that period were Dr. David Fleming Dawson and Dr. William David Love Appling. Other faculty were engaged in various levels of research as they directed students on master's degree theses, which all graduate students were required to do. The department was authorized to grant master's degrees in 1935 and the first master's degree was awarded to Roger Allen in 1937. The Ph.D. degree in mathematics was authorized in about 1968 and the first was awarded to Michael Keisler in 1974.

Recognizing that research was becoming an expected and essential requirement for the development of the department and for faculty advancement, deans in the College of Arts and Sciences eventually authorized teaching loads of twelve hours in about 1966, nine hours in the late seventies, and finally six hours in the late eighties. Another natural outgrowth of the research emphasis by the departmental faculty was a realization of the need to host and sponsor research conferences, to aggressively seek research grant support from NSF, NSA, DARPA, defense agencies, etc., to have both short-term and long-term visiting scholars, to support faculty travel to conferences and other institutions both here and abroad, to keep the math library intact and up-to-date, to appoint established research scholars to the faculty, and to appoint and tenure faculty whose potential for excellence in research would be clear. All of these things the departmental faculty has accomplished. The appointment of recognized research scholars began with Drs. John William Neuberger (who at the time was a tenured professor at Emory University), Richard Daniel Mauldin (a tenured associate professor at the University of Florida), and Robert Kallman (a tenured professor at the University of Florida). A host of others who had just completed the Ph.D. degree have been appointed along with a few who had been out of school a few years and who had established solid research credentials. Quite a few research conferences have been hosted by the department. The first of significance was the Scottish Book Conference in 1979. Two regional meetings of the AMS; several specialized research conferences on topics in analysis, differential equations, dynamical systems, algebra; and at least three meetings of the Texas Section of MAA have also been significant events for the department. A Joint Meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the Sociedad Matematica Mexicana (AMS/SMM) was held here at the University of North Texas in May 1999. This was the first time that this joint meeting was held in the USA. The AMS is the leading organization for research mathematicians here in the US and SMM holds the same position for mathematicians in Mexico. The department has been unusually successful in obtaining research grant support, with the total amount of grants in force each year generally totaling nearly $1 million. Scores of mathematical scholars have visited in the department over the years and have always been impressed with the library holdings as well as the warm and supportive reception given by our faculty and students. Of special note have been long term visitors Professor Gian-Carlo Rota of MIT and Professor Phil Griffith of the University of Illinois. Paul Erdos and Stanislaw Ulam were frequent visitors who came to work with and get acquainted with our faculty, as well as Professor Shizuo Kakutani from Yale University. Along with a cadre of internationally recognized research mathematicians on our faculty, the department has always enjoyed having a very active and energetic collection of young faculty who are working to build their own as well as the department's reputation as a leading research and teaching enterprise.

A partial listing of persons who have held faculty positions in our department, along with a list of our current faculty and their research areas can be found on the People page.

Coupled with the faculty's pursuit of excellence in mathematical scholarship has been the keen desire of the faculty to be effective and responsible classroom teachers. Instruction in mathematics has as its goal to enable students to think precisely and rigorously about questions and to use given information to solve problems. A quote from Proclus captures the essence of instruction here: "This, therefore, is mathematics: she reminds you of the invisible form of the soul; she gives to her own discoveries; she awakens the mind and purifies the intellect; she brings light to our intrinsic ideas; she abolishes oblivion and ignorance which are ours by birth." Mathematical research and applications of mathematics permeate instruction. It has been our passion to endow our students with knowledge, sharpen their mathematical talents, and inspire their creative nature. Lewis Carroll wrote: "It may well be doubted whether, in all the range of science, there is any field so fascinating to the explorer--so rich with hidden treasures, so fruitful in delightful surprises-- as Pure Mathematics." Mathematics for mathematics' sake to open many doors! Faculty and students participate in a virtual kaleidoscope of real world applications of mathematics with a view toward advancing economies, providing for environmental defense, improving technology, and generally improving the world we live in. It is reported that Napoleon I said: "The advancement and perfection of mathematics are intimately connected with the prosperity of the State."

Graduate and undergraduate mathematics majors are vital and essential to the well-being of the department. The total number of graduate students had been about 30 or 40 until about 1976 when the number was essentially zero. This happened because of an administrative decision to place a temporary moratorium on the doctoral program during which time spurious charges of program irregularities were investigated and resolved. Subsequently, the number of graduate students rose to about 75 in the 1980's, and has settled at around 50 now. The number of undergraduate majors has fluctuated in a similar manner, and stands at about 90 now. Nearly all graduate students hold teaching fellowships while they enroll for a full-time program of study. The average length of time students spend on completing the master's degree is about two years and then about five more years to complete the Ph.D. degree. Practically all of these students tell us later that their time in school was the "best time in my life!" Students from all over the US and from many foreign countries continue to form a challenging and stimulating student body. And many of these return for visits with faculty and staff from time to time.

In about 1994 the department encountered an unusual opportunity. Andrew Beal, who at the time was a very young Dallas banker and entrepreneur, became interested in our undergraduate and graduate programs in mathematics and spent several hours consulting with Professors Mauldin and Neuberger about some ideas he had for solving Fermat's Last Theorem. Mr. Beal had no formal education in mathematics but had learned a great deal on his own. His ideas led to a new problem called the `Beal Conjecture'. He also funded scholarships for students in the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, for graduate students in mathematics, and also offered the university two million dollars toward the construction of a Mathematics Building (which he wanted to be called Fermat Hall). However, the university administration was not able to accept this offer since they were not willing to provide the additional $7M needed for construction. Hence, the department continues to be housed in the General Academic Building, which we moved to in 1980. Prior to that time, the department was in the Physics Math Building and the old Historical Building (now called Curry Hall).

The department operates under its own charter, first adopted in 1966 and revised in 1999 to reflect better the whole of the faculty. However, the department has always operated under faculty authority. Prior to the adoption of the first charter, the professors advised the chair and made decisions about hiring and directions the department should take. Chairs in the department have played an important role, but always a support role so that students and faculty could get their best work done in learning, teaching, and research. We do not have records on hand to determine when the first chair was named or who. We do know that Dr. Eugene Harold Hansen served as chair from 1935-1957, that Dr. James Vincent Cooke was interim chair for 1957-58, and that Dr. Herbert Charles Parrish was chair 1958-1965. Other chairs have been:

  • Dr. John Theodore Mohat (1965-1970)
  • Dr. Frank Field Connor (1970-1975)
  • Dr. John T. Mohat, interim (1975-1976)
  • Dr. John Ed Allen (1976-1999)
  • Dr. Neal Edwin Brand (1999-2007)
  • Dr. J. Matthew Douglass (2007-2011)
  • Dr. Su Gao (2011-2016)
  • Dr. Charles Conley (2016-2019)
  • Dr. Ralf Schmidt (2019-present)

It is of some interest to note that (as of this date) all of these persons, except for Drs. Hansen and Mohat who are deceased, still live in Denton! And indeed since 1965 we can recall only two math faculty, who retired while teaching here, that have died; they are Mohat, and Dr. Burns Brewer who had a heart attack and died in the barber's chair in the late sixties. Long lives the mathematics professor in Denton! [Note: Dr. Herb Parrish died this summer, after this piece was prepared. Herb served as chair when I was hired and was always a source of inspiration for all of us who knew him and had the opportunity to work with him.]

Special recognition must also be given to those who have served as departmental administrative personnel both past and present. Those we recall with some fondness have been Eloise Buck, Betty Gunter, Kay Nelson, Lynn Holick, Pat Peters, Christy Strickland, Ginny Lassiter, Belinda Firth, Beth Leggieri, and Desiree Turner. Andrea Monda Slater served the department well and for many years as secretary leaving us in the year 2000 to work only half-time in another department. Currently, Jana Watkins heads up the administrative staff as Office Manager of the main office, and she joined the Math family in 2011. Cheryl Giordano also works in the main office taking care of travel and grants and has been with the department since 2010. Brennan Blair assists the graduate advisor with the graduate program and the associate chair in regards to scheduling and joined the department in 2010. Rita Sears assists students in the Math Placement & Testing Center with Math placement and prerequisites. Sonja Brewer manages the Math Lab and the Math Quest Center and joined the team in 2012. Our most recent admin to join the team is Kari Rogers who joined us in January 2013 and will supervise the Math Lab Tutors. The administrative personnel in the department have always been so much more than just secretaries. They share joy and pain with both students and faculty, being very active in the whole life of the department. On many occasions they have worked untold extra hours to make conferences run smoothly, registrations for classes more tolerable, and by giving special notice to new degree holders with cakes and flowers, celebrating with faculty and students special birthdays and anniversaries. Our graduates often will not recall who their teachers were, but they always remember how helpful and considerate and who the administrative personnel have been!

So much more could be said and tales told. But these reminiscences occupy us individually with many hours of reflection and pleasure, and occasionally collectively as we speak of them. Let it be said, and sufficiently so, that the collection of people, ideas, hopes and dreams which comprise what is affectionately called the Mathematics Department at the University of North Texas in Denton has a spirit of its own, unique and indomitable! Watch out World! Here we have been, here we are, and here we come!