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R. L. Moore

Chronology of the Life and Times of Robert Lee Moore

The biography by John Parker, R.L. Moore: Mathematician & Teacher, is the main source for this brief chronology. These excerpts stress the personal and social aspects of Dr. Moore’s life and times rather than his mathematical work. The latter is included in Parker’s biography and in the literature cited on this web site.

Roots and Influences

1858

RLM’s father, Charles, moved from Connecticut to Kentucky. He and a brother fought on the side of the South in the Civil War while two brothers who remained in the north enlisted on the Union side.

 

With R.L. Moore came an ancestry reflecting the American Civil War, 1861-1865, “in a quite remarkable way and, when combined with his own future career, we are provided with a classic American tale.” (Parker, 3)

1866

Charles married into another family named Moore from Virginia with his wedding on 10 May to Mary E. Moore.

1877

The family with their, then, four children moved to Dallas, Texas, to set up a hardware, grain and grocery store.

 

The booming town of Dallas saw an influx of people that included  many leaving a declining cotton industry and slaves freed in 1865. The Ku Klux Klan made its first recorded appearance there in 1868. (Dallas Historical Society)

1882 Nov. 14

Born in Dallas. A sister, Caroline Louisa, was born in 1887.

 

RLM’s father, Charles, hid his northern roots. “His children were adults before they learned that they had relatives in Connecticut.” (Parker, 8)

 

RLM and two of his brothers were placed in the hands of “a dour Scot named Waldemar Malcolmson” who ran a private school of exceptionally high quality for the place and time. (Parker, 8-10)

 

“Public school funding was not adequately supported by taxation in Dallas until the early 1900s and a number of private establishments sprung up to fill the void.” (Parker, 8)

1898

Began to teach himself calculus from the textbook used at the University of Texas at Austin. 

 

“[T]he hardest [working] student I have ever had, nothing pleases him but continuous study. … He takes special pleasure in the study of mathematics in many cases solving, without aid, the most difficult propositions in an original manner.” Malcolmson quoted in Parker, 11.

Of Richest Promise

1898-1902

As a student at the University of Texas he came under the influence of the colorful professor George Bruce Halsted who studied under J.J. Sylvester at Johns Hopkins.

 

“The University of Texas was as old as Robert Lee Moore, building having begun in 1881 after political machinations had delayed funding.” Though Austin was selected in 1882 as the site of a branch of the university for African-Americans, no funds were ever appropriated for it by the state legislature. (Parker, 11)

 

RLM’s mathematics courses included some under L.E. Dickson, a former Halsted student who went on to become prominent at the University of Chicago. RLM obtained his B.S. and M.A. degrees in 1901. 

 

“Mr. Moore, if you are going to make mathematics as a profession you should pay more attention to the pedagogical and learn to talk slow.” RLM’s diary quote from Halsted. (Parker, 15)

1902

“The Betweenness Assumptions” published.

 

“Looking up toward the old main building, [RLM] saw the light shining from Halsted’s window and hurried to his room. Halsted wrote down Moore’s oral arguments and sent the paper to the American Mathematical Monthly.” (Parker, 35)

1902-1903

While awaiting a fellowship opening at Chicago, he taught high school in Marshall, Texas.

 

“He stood in front of a classroom of long rows with girls on one side of the room and boys on the other. Some of the tough young farm lads delighted in playing him up. … After a while things settled down and, as a rule, the students came to like him. ‘We found we could get on his good side by asking a lot of questions, so we did.’” (Parker, 41)

On to Chicago

1903

Halsted and RLM corresponded frequently and not exclusively on mathematics. Their contact continued, with decreasing frequency, until Halsted’s death in 1922.

 

“[Y]ou should read William James The Will to Believe … I supposed you had intellectually passed the point where you supposed there was any tenable meaning in the phrase you use ‘simply in search of the truth.’” Halsted to RLM, 26 Feb. 1903.

1903-1905

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago he studied under E.H. Moore but his principal supervisor was Oswald Veblen. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1905.

 

“The mathematics department of the University of Chicago had, in its short history, attracted international attention and acclaim as a place of significant and exciting developments ….” (Parker, 45)


“An aura of excitement, competitiveness and newness developed at Chicago that was in many ways unique.” (Parker, 58)

 

Along with Halsted, E.H. Moore and his “lab method” was likely an early influence on RLM’s teaching method.

 

“Perhaps the overriding aspect that came out of these discussions in the Chicago Mathematics Club was E.H. Moore’s insistence on great care being taken in using precise language. This reinforced a trait already evident in R.L. Moore’s earliest work ….” (Parker, 56)

1904 March

 

 

“I think you are in mathematics for good, are you not?” E.H. Moore asked RLM as reported in the latter’s diary. “I hope so” he replied.

Uneasy Progress

1905-1906

RLM appointed to the University of Tennessee

 

In 1905 “Veblen went to Princeton to launch what was to become an outstanding  career solely from that base while R.L. Moore himself took up relatively low-grade work in terms of both pay and stature, at the University of Tennessee.” (Parker, 76)

1906-1908

Veblen arranged for RLM to get a preceptorship at Princeton University.

 

“In later years he would speak of his dislike of some aspects of the Princeton system, in that there existed something akin to uniform examinations for all calculus sections.” (Parker, 83-84)

”He embarked on an almost daily schedule of arduous boxing sessions …. He did so with a vigor that verged upon the obsessive ….” (Parker 85)

1907

RLM’s dissertation published: “Sets of metrical hypotheses for geometry,” Transactions of the American Mathematical Society.

Transition

1908-1911

RLM moved back to Chicago to join the faculty of Northwestern University.

 

“Moore’s own mathematics did not flourish at Northwestern but there is little doubt that his experience there … had a settling effect.” (Parker, 93)

1910 August

Married Margaret MacLellan Key in her hometown, Brenham, Texas. They first met at the University of Texas in 1901.

Mrs. Moore

1911-1920

Appointment to the University of Pennsylvania opened a period of renewed activity.

 

Though the Moore Method became “generally linked to his Texas era … [t]here is clear evidence … that R.L. Moore began to experiment with these issues almost as soon as he arrived at Penn.” (Parker, 98) See also Zitarelli.

 

Fourteen research papers were published while at Penn.

1913

H.J. Ettlinger, who obtained his PhD from Harvard under G.D. Birkhoff, joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

RLM “had a life-long friendship with his Jewish colleague … H.J. Ettlinger, and directed his son Martin in his MA studies. … R.D. Anderson remembers that Moore ‘used the expression Northern Jews when he wanted to stew Ettlinger, [senior]’ in a somewhat light-hearted manner, nor did he show any apparent reluctance to accept Jewish students. If there was a streak of anti-Semitism in him he was certainly not alone in the world of science and mathematics …” (Parker, 164)

1913-1927

Associate Editor, Transactions of the American Mathematical Society.

 

 

1916

RLM’s first of three PhD students at Penn, J.R. Kline, remained there as a prominent and influential professor.

 

“Two of the first three African-Americans in the entire United States of America to earn their PhD in mathematics did so at Penn, and by an ironic twist of fate became mathematical descendants of R.L. Moore.” (Parker, 96) See the account  of Dudley Weldon Woodard and William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor on the Penn web site.

 

 

 

“Claytor wrote a very fine thesis.  In many ways I think that it is perhaps the best that I have ever had done under my direction.” J.R. Kline to R.L. Moore, 24 Oct. 1933. (Moore Collection, Archives of American Mathematics)

Back to Texas

1920 Fall

Appointed an associate professor at the University of Texas (today designated “at Austin”).

 

“The university was expanding rapidly … but, for some years, budgetary restrictions and indecision over new buildings meant the university wasn’t exactly setting the world alight in mathematics.” (Parker, 117-118)


Racial segregation continued to be legally enforced in Texas. “So pervasive was racism in Texas [in the period 1900--1920] that the subject rarely came up in partisan campaigns. …   Tolerance for black aspirations in Texas did not manifest itself for more than four decades.”  -- Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. ”Progressive Era,” (accessed June 26, 2006).

 

Thirty research papers were published during this decade.

 

“[T]he number of students he graduated were, not unexpectedly, fewer at times of his own high output. At the same time, however, his own research results formed the basis of his teaching …” (Parker, 126)

 

 

 

“It was said that he could spot likely candidates even before they spoke, young people he could turn into mathematical stars.” (Parker, 129)

1923

R.L. Wilder was RLM’s only PhD student during this period.

 

Wilder came to Texas intending to become an actuary but took a course with Moore. “[W]hen Moore discovered that Wilder had solved a problem that had baffled even J.R. Kline [he] challenged Wilder to change course and take his PhD in topology. … Wilder went on to become one of America’s outstanding mathematicians.” (Parker, 130)

1924

The renowned number theorist H.S. Vandiver joined the University of Texas at Austin.

 

“Although quite friendly for a while, a bitter feud later developed between himself and R.L. Moore and they spent years not talking to each other.” (Parker, 123)

1929

Delivered the prestigious Colloquium Lectures for the American Mathematical Society.

 

 

A Change of Direction

1931

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

 

 

1931-1932

Visiting Lecturer, American Mathematical Society

 

“He was the first native-born American to be offered the position, previously filled by eminent mathematicians from Europe. … The lecture tour was an unqualified success with substantial plaudits as he traveled to some of the nation's finest universities…. ” (Parker, 139)

1932

Publication of his groundbreaking book Foundations of Point Set Theory.

 

“It was to become a major point of reference for many subsequent investigations, continuing for several decades afterwards and revived with the publication of a revised edition in 1962.” (Parker, 141)

 

 

 

“[T]he majority of his students felt themselves liberated by his method in that they were taught to seek the truth for themselves.  It also summed up the direction Moore was taking in his own life, one in which he was to dedicate himself to teaching above all else.” (Parker, 159)


“The road towards this accomplishment, using the axiomatic approach for both research and teaching, began in earnest in the 1930s, although not without detractors in respected quarters.” (Parker, 145)

Politics and Persuasion

1937-1938

Elected president of the American Mathematical Society.

 

“The years prior to Moore's term as president of the American Mathematical Society were challenging and demanding both in terms of the history of the Society itself and the world at large.” (Parker, 162)

 

 

 

Six papers were published and six doctoral students were produced during the decade of the 1930s.

 

During the build-up to World War II,  European émigrés sought escape from Nazi oppression.
“[Moore] did not support an open door policy [to Jewish immigration] but, at the same time, according to Burton Jones, Moore held a certain amount of respect for them as a group, in that they had to 'work harder to do more' to establish their place in society.” (Parker, 163)

 

 

“Moore's politics were firm and outspoken, and still steeped in the Southern principles by which he was raised.  He would have no truck with American left-wingers.” (Parker, 165) 

 

 

Though some of his work was of considerable note “[he] seemed more intent on providing a springboard for future development by his former and current students.” (Parker, 174)

Moore the Teacher: A New Era

 

Nine students obtained their PhDs under RLM between 1940 and 1952.

 

“In exposing students to his own ideas, his own social bias came bubbling to the surface and much of it was openly rejected by those he was addressing. This was especially so on one of his favorite topics, Roosevelt and the New Dealers, and Moore did not always get an encouraging response …. ” (Parker, 186)

 

1943

Moore unsuccessfully attempted to enlist the weight of the American Mathematical Society in opposition to the Science Mobilization Bill which attempted to provide legal sanctions to enforce mobilization of scientific and technical facilities for war work. (Parker, 171)

1945

 

 

“Those who had been yanked out of class for war service, such as R.D. Anderson, E.E. Moise, and C.E. Burgess, came back to find themselves among another select band of new Moore students who were showing great promise…” such as Mary Ellen Rudin, Gail S. Young, and R H Bing.

1946

H.S. Wall joined the Texas faculty.

 

Wall was already exploring a method of teaching similar to Moore’s before coming to Texas. “He and Moore got along well and Wall was fascinated by the Moore Method, with which he soon began experimenting, and then adopted for some of his courses. … Many would testify that Wall also seemed able to add a unique humanitarian side to the method, and instilled in individual students a creative spirit along with a challenge to create new mathematics.” (Parker, 236)

1947

Moore became 65 years old.

 

“Few would have guessed that at that stage he still had in him two further decades of delivering the Moore Method message to a succession of talented young people.” (Parker, 232)

1950

“From 1950 onwards, five of his students and a sixth who studied with him but gained her degree under Kline, became presidents of the [Mathematical Association of America] which meant that for almost a quarter of the time in the remaining half of the twentieth century, the person leading the MAA was a student of R.L. Moore.” (Parker, 233)

 

 

“[T]he spread of  Moore’s influence across mathematical research and mathematical education began to expand across the whole community, first through his own personal efforts and then through those of his mathematical descendants.” (Parker, 233)

 

 

He made no effort whatsoever to see that his style of teaching was perpetuated through his students.
“He was never curious whether you were using his method. Absolutely not. It would be against the rules of the game to ask. He really stuck to the rules. My methods were very different.” Mary Ellen Rudin quoted in Parker, 234.

Changing Times: Racism and Looming Retirement

1950

 

 

Racial separation by force of law continued in the state until the University of Texas moved towards desegregation as a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1950 and 1954. Racist biases however were not overcome quickly.

1952

RLM's 70th birthday.

 

University rules required professors to enter “modified service” at age 70.  “It was a day for which certain members of the administrative body of the university had long been waiting. Those who felt that mathematics at Texas should not be so strongly influenced by Moore were taking steps to diminish that influence …. But was there any rule that specifically barred the modified professor from working full-time for half pay?” (Parker, 277) 

1960

“Some considered, and stated openly, that Moore was living in the past, obsessed with a bygone age.” (Parker, 294)

 

For the United States the new decade saw “dramatically changing scenarios, which would in time have a profound impact on educational institutions across the country”. (Parker, 294)

 

Twenty-eight students received PhDs under Moore from 1952 to his retirement in 1969.

 

“Moore had already set himself on a course that would steer him into his most productive era, when measured by the number of students he supervised towards their PhD.” (Parker, 285)

 

 

 

“Alas there was one downside. [Dr. Moore] was an unreconstructed segregationalist just as that attitude was going very far out of fashion.” (J.C. Davis quoted in Parker, 287.)


Many of his students were not aware of his stance which was, however, clearly evident to the few early African-American mathematics students accepted into the university and who attempted to enter his classes. Nevertheless a number of these “were exposed to Moore Method teaching, although not necessarily with the blessing of its founder.” (Parker, 291) See Walker E. Hunt, Vivienne Malone-Mayes, Raymond L. Johnson.

The Final Years

1966

Challenge in the Classroom, film on Moore by the Mathematical Association of America.

 

“Surely, no one viewing it could have come to any other conclusion than that here was a man, firm and outspoken, whose sternness was interrupted by flashes of evident kindness and humor, dedicated to mathematics and to his students.” (Parker, 317)

 

 

A move was made at the university to introduce mandatory retirement at age 75 and a new dean of the college, J.R. Silber, “made no attempt to conceal his view that the very presence and reputation of Moore hindered the recruitment of new faculty and some of the visitors concurred. In short, an era of unrest and turmoil was foreshadowed as Silber and Moore or, more precisely, his students, went head to head.” (Parker, 322)

1968-1969

RLM’s last year of teaching.

 

“[T]he Board of Regents accepted the recommendations of Silber and Bledsoe [chair of the mathematics department], …. Silber requested that … Moore, Ettlinger and Lubben (who was just reaching his seventieth birthday) should be retired with immediate effect.” (Parker, 323)

1973

Dedication of the new R.L. Moore Hall housing the physics, mathematics and astronomy departments.

 

The Board of Regents “decided to name the entire building after him, which was indeed a major about-turn given that it was the largest classroom building on campus and that most such additions in modern times usually carried the name of financial benefactors”. (Parker, 330)

1974 October 4

RLM died in Austin. His wife survived a further two years. They had no children.

 

 

 

 


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