William Edward Story

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29 April 1850
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
10 April 1930
Worcester, Massachusetts, USA

William Story was an American mathematician important in the development of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University and Clark Universities.


William Story's parents were Elizabeth Bowen Woodberry and Isaac Story who was a lawyer. Cooke and Rickey put Story's career into context in the introduction to [2]:-
The career of W E Story (1850-1930) is intimately bound up with the first period (1875-1920) of institutionalised American mathematical research. Until after the Civil War, professors of mathematics in America generally attempted only to understand and transmit to their students the mathematics of previous generations. They rarely engaged in mathematical research, partly because their universities did not foster such activity. It was only during the general cultural expansion immediately following the Civil War that a few Americans began to study mathematics at European universities and some American universities began to offer graduate degrees in mathematics. The establishment of graduate programs at Hopkins, Clark, and Chicago is the clearest sign of a mathematical awakening in America. Although the program at Clark is the least known of these three, it was the leading light of institutional American mathematical research in the early 1890s. It also formed a transition between the program at Hopkins, which blossomed during J J Sylvester's tenure from 1876 to 1883, and that at Chicago, which developed rapidly in the mid-1890s.

An important figure in America's late-nineteenth-century emergence from the mathematical backwaters was William Edward Story. He graduated from Harvard, earned a Ph.D. in Germany, conducted mathematical research as a faculty member at Hopkins, and developed the graduate program at Clark. Thus not only was Story a central actor in the development of American mathematics, but also his career was a microcosm of the new mathematical activity. These are some of the reasons his biography provides an ideal basis for discussing the mathematical climate of the time. To emphasize the changes in that climate, it is appropriate to begin with his intellectual forebears, who represent an earlier, less institutionalised phase of mathematical activity.
Having given this quote to put Story's career into context, let us give further details. He entered Harvard College in 1867. Although the College had been founded in 1638 it only became a nationally important institution during Charles W Eliot's term as Harvard's president from 1869 to1909. One of Eliot's first moves was to set up an honour programme and Story was one of the first to graduate with honours, which he did in 1871. He then travelled to Germany where he attended lectures by Weierstrass, Kummer and Helmholtz in Berlin. He undertook research in Leipzig under the supervision of Carl Neumann and he was awarded a doctorate in 1875 for his thesis On the algebraic relations existing between the polars of the binary quintic.

After the award of his doctorate, Story returned to Harvard where he was appointed as a tutor. He had already come to know Benjamin Peirce when he was an undergraduate at Harvard and now back at Harvard he impressed Peirce yet further with his abilities. After Sylvester was appointed to Johns Hopkins University in 1876, the year the university opened operating primarily as a graduate school, he immediately began the task of building a strong research department and he approached Peirce, asking if he knew of anyone whom he could recommend. Indeed there was an obvious choice for a recommendation and Story was offered a position in Johns Hopkins by Sylvester which he was happy to accept. Soon after he arrived in Baltimore he met Mary Deborah Harrison and they were married in 1878; they had one child.

At first things went well at Johns Hopkins for Story who tried to develop the department on the German model that he had come to appreciate so much during the time he worked there for his doctorate. He founded a Mathematical Society in the University and along with Sylvester helped found the American Journal of Mathematics. He became an editor for the Journal but tensions arose between him and Sylvester. These tensions were not personal, but rather concerned editorial decisions which Story had made. Story resigned from the editorial board and was pleased to leave Johns Hopkins after he received an offer from another new university, this time Clark University which opened in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1887. Clark University was established by Jonas Gilman Clark, a Worcester native and successful merchant, and G Stanley Hall, a psychologist and first president of the university. Like Johns Hopkins, Clark University started as a graduate institution, the first undergraduates entering only in 1902. The University hired some excellent mathematicians, and there Story became a colleague of Henry Seely White and Oskar Bolza. However a serious political situation arose at Clark University and a vote of no confidence was passed in the president G Stanley Hall. Nine of the eleven members of faculty left Clark including both White and Bolza. Story, however, remained at Clark despite the fact that he only had two colleagues to help him run the Ph.D. programme.

In fact it was a very successful programme for 25 students were awarded their doctorates between 1892 and 1921, with sixteen of these students having their work supervised by Story. His most famous student was Lefschetz who began his studies in 1910, receiving his Ph.D. in 1911 with a thesis on algebraic geometry entitled On the existence of loci with given singularities.

Financial problems made Clark university close its graduate programme in 1919 and Story was forced to retire. He had become interested in the history of mathematics during the latter part of his career, writing a paper on Omar Khayyam in 1919. He was president of the Omar Khayyam Club from 1924 to 1927. He complied an extensive bibliography of mathematics which is now in the keeping of the American Mathematical Society.

Among the honours given to Story, perhaps the greatest was election to the National Academy of Sciences (United States) in 1908.

References (show)

  1. R Cooke, William Edward Story, American National Biography 20 (Oxford, 1999), 893-894.
  2. R Cooke and V F Rickey, W E Story of Hopkins and Clark, in A century of mathematics in America, Part III (Amer. Math. Soc., Providence, RI, 1989), 29-76.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update August 2005