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Pursuit of Genius: Flexner, Einstein, and the Early Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study

Steve Batterson
A K Peters
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[Reviewed by
Sarah Boslaugh
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The Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey may be best known in the popular mind as "the place where Albert Einstein worked". It is a unique institution in the United States which it is not affiliated with any university, does not grant degrees, and is supported entirely by endowments, grants and gifts, and yet it has attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century: besides Einstein, these include John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Panofsky and Freeman Dyson. Currently the IAS  consists of four schools, in the fields of Historical Studies, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Science, and has a small permanent faculty (26 members in 2006) of eminent scholars, plus a number of Visiting Members (190 in 2006).

Pursuit of Genius tells the story of the early years of the IAS, in fact going a bit further back in time to include the context of American higher education at the turn of the twentieth century. Three people were crucial to the founding of the IAS: Abraham Flexner (best remembered today for the Flexner Report of 1910, which led to the modernization of American medical education), the founder and first director of the IAS, and the philanthropists Louis Bamberger and Caroline Bamberger Fuld, who provided the initial funding (having presciently sold their department store to Macy's in September 1929).

The IAS was founded in 1930. Flexner's first task was to recruit faculty members, beginning with Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, the first school established at the IAS. Batterson's detailed rendition of Abraham Flexner's negotiations with a number of the most eminent mathematicians of the 1930s will delight anyone who has ever served on a faculty search committee. Despite some reversals, Flexner successfully recruited Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, Hermann Weyl and John von Neumann, all Europeans, and James W. Alexander and Marston Morse, both Americans. Batterson includes descriptions of each man's achievements and importance to the field of mathematics, as well as the social context in which recruitment activities took place, including rising anti-Semitism in Germany, and anti-Semitism in the United States, including Princeton.

Economics and Politics and Humanistic Studies, were the next two IAS Schools to be established. The extent to which the IAS was governed by the principle of recruiting only the finest scholars, rather than filling positions in pre-existing departments from among the available candidates, is illustrated by the fact that both schools began with just two faculty members: David Mitrany and Winfield Riefler in Economics and Politics and Erwin Panofsky and Benjamin Meritt in Humanistic Studies. Not until 1939 did all three schools attain the desired size of five to six faculty members. Flexner resigned his post as Director of the Institute in 1939; he was succeeded by Frank Aydelotte, who held the position until 1945. Batterson's main narrative ends with Flexner's resignation, and the subsequent history of the Institute is presented in much less detail. One detail worthy of note: the School of Natural Sciences was formed in 1965 when the physicists split off from the School of Mathematics.

Steve Batterson, who also wrote Stephen Smale: The Mathematician Who Broke the Dimension Barrier , received his PhD from Northwestern University and is currently an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Emory University. His research interests include Dynamical Systems and Numerical Linear Algebra. 

Sarah Boslaugh, PhD, MPH, is a Performance Analyst for BJC HealthCare in Saint Louis, Missouri. She published An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming with Sage Publications in 2005 and is currently editing The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology for Sage (forthcoming, 2007) and writing Secondary Data Sources for Public Health (forthcoming, 2007) for Cambridge University Press. She can be reached at [email protected].
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