Herbert Ellsworth Slaught


Born: 21 July 1861 in Seneca Lake, Watkins, New York, USA
Died: 21 May 1937 in Chicago, Illinois, USA

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Herbert Slaught was brought up on a farm on Seneca Lake but, when he was 13 years old, his family lost their farm and were forced to move. Perhaps, as Bliss relates in [1], this was a blessing in disguise:-

... Slaught himself has said that he would probably have spent his life working on the farm if it had not happened, and the farm was apparently not a very good one.

The family moved to Hamilton, New York, in 1875 and Slaught attended Colgate Academy until he graduated in 1879 and entered Colgate University. After an outstanding undergraduate career he graduated with an A.B. in 1883. He was offered the post of instructor in mathematics at the Peddie Institute in Hightstown, New Jersey and very quickly impressed everyone with his abilities to teach and his administrative abilities.

Slaught was quickly promoted at the Peddie Institute, first to assistant principal in 1886, then to principal in 1889. However, despite his success or perhaps because of it, he decided to aim higher. Bliss writes [1]:-

He had married Miss Mary L Davis, the instructor in music at Peddie, in 1885, and she sympathized with and encouraged his desire to enter the field of university mathematical work, even though such a course meant a serious sacrifice for them for some time to come. So in 1892 Slaught accepted a two-year appointment to one of the first three fellowships awarded by the Department of Mathematics at the University of Chicago, which was just then opening its doors.

After two years of research at Chicago, his fellowship ended and he was appointed onto the teaching staff. He did not complete his doctorate until 1898 because of the high teaching load that he had. His research had been supervised by Eliakim Moore and he was awarded his doctorate for a thesis entitled The Cross Ratio Group of 120 Quadratic Cremona Transformations of the Plane. Slaught soon received promotion. In 1900 he was made an assistant professor, them associate professor in 1908 and full professor in 1913. Slaught remained at Chicago for the rest of his career, retiring from his chair in 1931.

During 1902-3 Slaught travelled in Europe attending lectures by the leading mathematicians. Perhaps he felt that he could never achieve the depth of research he was exposed to at this time for, after a worrying time of indecision, he decided that he was not cut out for a research career but could give most to the world of mathematics by concentrating on teaching.

After seeking Dickson's advice on the best way to serve the mathematical community, he accepted Dickson's suggesting of becoming co-editor of the American Mathematical Monthly. He also became active in the organisation of the Mathematical Association of America, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the Chicago section of the American Mathematical Society. He served as secretary of the last named Society from 1906 to 1916.

Bliss [1] describes Slaught as:-

... one of the men most widely known by teachers and students of mathematics... His lifelong devotion to... the promotion of the study of mathematics, his skill as a teacher, his effective leadership in the mathematical organizations which he sponsored, and his influence with teachers of mathematics the country over, were remarkable.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


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    JOC/EFR November 1997
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    School of Mathematics and Statistics
    University of St Andrews, Scotland
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