Wilbour Hall looks like the kind of building that houses other civilizations, the kind of old-fashioned brick house you might imagine Indiana Jones teaching in. And for almost 40 years, it was exactly that place.
Professor David Pingree embodied the professor-explorer at heart. A man of intellectual depth and breadth, Pingree was both one of the world’s most talented translators of ancient languages and a world traveler who sought out those ancient languages. With a sprawling academic legacy encompassing four continents and 22,000 books, pamphlets and manuscripts, Pingree was a renowned scholar honored with one of the first ever MacArthur Fellowships, a grant awarded to leading intellectuals known for their creativity.
Pingree, who died in 2005, also left behind one of Brown’s smallest and least known departments. Until it closed in 2008, the graduate-only Department of the History of Mathematics was the only United States-based research department focusing on the history of mathematics and the exact sciences in its later years. The department is one of Brown’s most enigmatic legacies, and traces of its impact remain in some of the University’s academic disciplines and in its library collections.
The beginnings of the Department of the History of Mathematics go back to the years of Nazi Germany. In the early 1930s Otto Neugebauer, a mathematics professor at the University of Gottingen, rose to mathematical fame as the first editor of the “Zentralblatt fur Mathematik,” a new journal that reviewed all mathematical papers published across the world. When Hitler rose to power in 1934, Neugebauer left Germany like many of his fellow professors and settled in Copenhagen.
But the Nazis moved outward, and when they marched toward Denmark in 1939, the American Mathematical Society offered Neugebauer a professorship at Brown in the Department of Mathematics, where he revived the “Zentralblatt” as the American “Mathematical Reviews.” He served as editor for the publication – which still exists today – until 1948.
Neugebauer also had an abiding interest in the history of ancient mathematics, which he had taught in Gottingen. In 1941, Neugebauer visited Chicago’s collection of ancient cuneiform tablets and met Assyriologist Abraham Sachs, whom he brought back to Brown as a research assistant. When Sachs was offered a chair position at his alma mater Johns Hopkins University in 1948, then-University President Henry Wriston instead created the Department of the History of Mathematics for Neugebauer and Sachs to continue their research but also to educate graduate students.
The 1950s and ’60s marked a period of important publications from both Neugebauer and Sachs. The two decades would also mark the department’s growing role as a hub for scholars in the field of history of mathematics, drawing many of its leading members. Among them would be its last chair, David Pingree.
Pingree had been a longtime visitor to the history of mathematics department throughout the early 1960s while a doctoral student at Harvard, said his wife Isabelle Pingree. Those years were marked by weekly visits to Providence to collaborate with Neugebauer on Sanskrit texts, during which he became familiar with many of the department’s visiting scholars. After a stint at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, Pingree returned to Providence to teach in the department he would be affiliated with until his death.
Pingree had a noted reputation as a scholar and leading intellectual, said Michio Yano, one of his mentees in the 1970s and ’80s. “There was no other place except Brown – except Pingree’s place – where I could develop my work and my interests,” Yano said.
The Department of the History of Mathematics was also well-suited to Pingree’s work, which dealt heavily in primary source texts, said Kim Plofker PhD’95.
“He had these four to five offices with all these books in them on the first floor of Wilbour Hall,” she said. “Whenever you walked in and asked him about something or about a particular book, he’d just put down what he was doing and talk to you about it, or pick out a book.”
Primary source texts underpinned Pingree’s work, his wife said. “Manuscripts were the great love of his life.”
Pingree was also equally famous for his conscientiousness. He refused to hire a secretary for his work in the department and was dedicated to keeping costs of his research as low as possible, Isabelle Pingree said.
“He was just so well known for being really, really nice as well as incredibly erudite, modest – it’s cloying almost,” Plofker joked. “You almost want to say something bad about him just to liven things up a bit.”
But Pingree was most famous for the level of scholarship that drew students to study with him.
“The approach that Pingree had was drop you in the deep end, see if you can float,” said Toke Knudsen PhD’08, with a “read as much as you can for tomorrow” mentali
ty. The department required that students be able to read two classical languages: Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic or Persian. Knudsen had studied Sanskrit. But before Knudsen’s first day of class, he found that he was so unfamiliar with the style of mathematical texts versus classic literature that he only made it past one line, he said.
Studying primary texts – sources in their original languages – “was the way he taught,” Knudsen said. “You were kind of always in the situation where you went into the class without a complete understanding, but the more you engaged with it and the more time you spent with it, the better you became.”
Even in both Pingree’s and the department’s final years, Pingree maintained that level of dedication while his health declined significantly.
“He was never totally well,” Knudsen said. “His dedication to his work kept him going.”
Despite hospital visits, Pingree began holding classes at home in the spring of 2005. “He was conscientious and didn’t want to cancel the class,” Knudsen said. “It was a difficult dynamic (because) it became clear he couldn’t really continue doing that.”
The ‘ghost department’
At the time of Pingree’s death, Knudsen was only partially through his dissertation.
“I was really only kind of three years into it,” Knudsen said. Then-Dean of the Graduate School Sheila Bonde suggested he find a new adviser from “anywhere.”
The department became a “ghost department,” Knudsen said, with Bonde serving as a temporary chair to allow Knudsen and Micah Ross ’98 PhD’06, the only graduate students remaining in the department, to finish their degrees. Though Ross graduated shortly after Pingree’s death, Knudsen had only begun dissertation work by the fall of 2005. Plofker, who had worked as a visiting scholar in the department before, returned to Brown as a primary adviser for Knudsen.
“The first thing to do” following Pingree’s death was to take care of the remaining graduate students in the department, Plofker said.
“The nightmare for every professor is: If something happens to you and you leave a student – what are they going to do?” she added.
Knudsen completed most of the work on his dissertation in the 2006-07 academic year, successfully defending his dissertation the following fall. He received his degree in May 2008.
But the writing was “on the wall” by the time of Pingree’s death, Knudsen said.
“Very soon after his death it was clear that the department was not going to continue,” he said.
“For a long time it was just me. I was History of Math,” Knudsen said. “It was a very strange feeling, especially when I graduated, because on the one hand, I got my Ph.D., but it was also really sad because now there wasn’t anything left.”
Remnants of a legacy
In 2007, Isabelle Pingree sold over 20,000 books in David Pingree’s collection to the University libraries, a collection which still draws scholars to Providence today, Plofker said.
“There’s what he did, and then there’s getting along without him,” Plofker said, describing Pingree as “one of the very central people for keeping connections going and for facilitating scholarship.” His death “set the field back at least a decade,” she added.
But a remnant of the original History of Mathematics as a department still survives. Today, Wilbour Hall houses the Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies department, which is a “de facto continuation of the department,” wrote John Steele, a professor in the department, in an email to The Herald. The department, which includes a track titled “The History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity,” conducts research and graduate teaching in a similar vein and currently houses one grad student.
Wilbour Hall also exists on the Internet at wilbourhall.org, a sparsely designed but content-rich website that houses translations and scanned materials of many of the discipline’s documents. Many of the department’s graduates have also moved abroad, and many are teaching individually at colleges scattered across the world.
But though no central hub has emerged to fill the history of mathematics gap, Plofker said the study of the exact sciences would “always … be relevant.”
Even if no institution replaces the department, “we’ll keep going,” Plofker said.
“Professor Pingree would be very disappointed in us if we didn’t.”
Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian studies department has a track called “The Exact Sciences in Antiquity” and one graduate student. The department has eleven graduate students, one of whom is in the “Exact Sciences in Antiquity” track. The article also incorrectly stated that David Pingree was the second and last chair of the department. He was the last chair of the department but not the second. The Herald regrets the errors.