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Guide to the Richard Courant Papers MC 150

New York University Archives
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New York University Archives

Collection processed by Katie Ehrlich. Additional processing and German translation by Ryan Dahn

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 18, 2019
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Updated by Jennifer E. Neal to incorporate materials being sent offsite in 2019 and for compliance with DACS and ACM Required Elements for Archival Description  , June 2019

Biographical Note

Richard Courant, pioneer in applied mathematics and intellectual architect of NYU's Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences, was born into a Jewish family in Lublinitz, Germany (now Poland) in 1888. He was academically-minded from an early age. Courant studied physics and mathematics at the University of Breslau and the University of Zürich before ultimately finding his niche at the University of Göttingen. There he quickly became part of a group of renowned mathematicians, physicists and philosophers.

At Göttingen, Courant became the protégé of mathematician David Hilbert, completing his dissertation on the Dirihlet Principle there in 1910. Courant spent two years lecturing at Göttingen after completing compulsory military service. He married Nelly Neumann, a student he knew from his time at Breslau, in 1912. They divorced during Courant's time in combat during World War I.

On the outbreak of the war, Courant, immediately enlisted in the army. In 1915, while serving on the front lines, he was severely wounded near Douai, France. While in the trenches Courant realized the need for more reliable military communication, and conceived of a telegraph system that would use the earth as its wire. He spent the rest of the war developing and implementing such a system with a team of scientists at Göttingen. At that time he also met Nerina (Nina) Runge, the daughter of the famous Göttingen math professor Carl Runge. They wed in 1919 and remained married until Courant's death in 1972. They had four children.

After World War I, Courant taught briefly at the University of Münster before returning to Göttingen as a full professor, where he worked to strengthen the mathematics department. He continued his work in partial differential equations and mathematical physics, publishing widely. Perceiving a need for advanced texts in various mathematical topics, Courant began editing a series of monographs in partnership with publisher Ferdinand Springer. Grundlehren der mathematischen Wissenschaften is still published to this day.

With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, in 1929 Courant organized the construction of a new building to house the university's mathematics institute. This helped further the institute's long-standing goal of promoting collaboration between Göttingen's math and scientific communities. This international partnership was an early indication of Courant's talent for leadership in an academic setting. The Nazis' rise to power meant disaster for the math and science communities in German universities. Under the "Civil Service Law," Jewish and politically suspect professors were summarily dismissed from their positions. As a consequence, Courant was placed on "extended leave" from Göttingen in 1933. He tried many times to fight his dismissal, but realized it was futile. He quickly obtained a one-year position at the University of Cambridge.

Courant's colleagues Niels and Harald Bohr and Abraham Flexner helped him secure a two-year teaching position at NYU in 1934. At that time the university's math program was small and underdeveloped. "New York," Courant said in a 1967 speech accepting NYU's Gallatin Medal for outstanding achievement, "seemed starved for mathematical activity." Moreover, the Great Depression meant the university's resources were drastically limited. Becoming head of the Graduate School's Department of Mathematics in 1936, Courant slowly grew the program. He sought financial help from external sources such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. Over the next decade he brought in K.O. Friedrichs and Fritz John, who had studied and taught with him in Germany. He complemented their talent with the American mathematician J.J. Stoker. Courant, Stoker and Friedrichs quickly formed the core of the department and strove towards broadening its focus by bridging the gap between theoretical and applied mathematics. He became an American citizen in 1940.

The influence of Courant's cohort of mathematicians at NYU was still relatively small when the United States entered World War II. Courant secured government funding for various military projects to help the war effort. This work increased NYU's prominence in applied mathematics and for the first time brought the government's attention to the group of talented mathematicians Courant had gathered. Funded mainly by the Navy and the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the department researched wave propagations, detonations and other military-related phenomena. Through this work Courant was invited to become a member of the OSRD's Applied Mathematics Panel, headed by Warren Weaver. The panel provided mathematical support to scientists involved in military work. Courant worked closely with Warren Weaver, who headed the Mathematics Panel of the ORSD, to secure even more war project funding and expand the faculty.

Military funding continued to flow in the immediate postwar years. In 1951, NYU's Board of Trustees approved Courant's proposal for a mathematics institute to be supported by outside funders. Initially called the Institute for Mathematics and Mechanics, its name was changed to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMS) to reflect the broad nature of its work. The Institute was devoted to all areas of mathematics, recognizing no boundary between applied and theoretical work. Courant served as its first director. Soon after, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission established a computing center at the university. The center was built around a UNIVAC I computer, the first commercially available computer in the United States.

Courant retired from teaching in 1958, receiving an honorary degree at NYU's commencement that year, but continued his consulting work. The IMS was renamed the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (CIMS) three years later. Soon after, the Sloan Foundation, Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation provided funding for a new home for the institute.

Warren Weaver Hall was completed in 1965. Courant stayed on as a consultant for the Institute until his death in 1972.

Courant's principal works include Methods of Mathematical Physics, Vol. I and II (with David Hilbert),  Differential and Integral Calculus, Vol. I and II and  What is Mathematics? (with H.E. Robbins).