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Science on the Farther Shore

Brian Hayes

The Young Schoolmaster

Figure 1. Robert Adrain (1775û1843) . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Adrain was born in Ireland in 1775, in the coastal town of Carrickfergus, near Belfast. What is known of his early years has more to do with politics than mathematics. In 1798 he joined the insurgency of the United Irishmen, a coalition of Catholic and Protestant forces opposed to British rule. He survived a gunshot wound, but after the failure of the rebellion he had to flee the country, escaping to New York with his wife, Anna Pollock, and an infant daughter. He found refuge in Princeton with the widow of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the founder of the United Irishmen.

Adrain seems to have become a teacher of mathematics without ever pausing along the way to be a student. Back in Ireland he had already worked as a schoolmaster and tutor, perhaps as early as age 15, and in America he was soon employed as a teacher at the Princeton Academy (not the university, but a school for younger students). A few years later he took a similar position in York, Pennsylvania, then became principal of yet another academy 50 miles away in Reading. In 1809 Adrain moved his family back across the Delaware River into New Jersey, but this time the calling was a grander one: He was named professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Queens College in New Brunswick. As a matter of fact, Adrain was the first person to be accorded the title of professor at Queens, and the college had to organize a public lottery to pay his salary. They also awarded him an honorary master's degree (perhaps to help justify the title and the salary).

Despite the largesse of Queens, Adrain was soon on the move again. He accepted a professorship at Columbia College in New York, which conferred another honorary degree, this time with doctoral rank. He stayed at Columbia for more than a dozen years, then in 1826 returned to New Brunswick, where in the meantime Queens College, after an interlude of financial distress, had reopened as Rutgers College (it is now officially styled Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey). But this second tenure in New Brunswick was even shorter than the first; a year later Adrain was wooed away to Philadelphia by the University of Pennsylvania.

Adrain's last years took a curious and humiliating turn. In 1834 he was forced to resign from the Penn faculty, apparently because he couldn't maintain classroom discipline. He wound up teaching at a grammar school in New York—quite a step down for a university professor, although the new job may in fact have been better paid. In 1840 Adrain retired to a farm in New Brunswick, where he died three years later.

Even allowing for the late disappointments, Adrain had a distinguished academic career by American standards of the time. But conditions were certainly different in France or Germany; one can scarcely imagine Gauss being dismissed from Göttingen University because of some unruly students. Moreover, Adrain's teaching duties cannot have left him much time for research; at Penn he was expected to teach the entire mathematics curriculum, from remedial arithmetic through calculus, to all four classes of undergraduates. Nevertheless, he not only wrote original articles but also became editor and publisher of the journals they appeared in.

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