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STP – History – 1935-1940 – Formation of the School

1935-1940 – Formation of the School

1.1 Constitution of the Institute

Shortly after Eamon de Valera became Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland), he began to investigate the possibility of setting up an institute of higher learning. Being a mathematician himself, he was acutely aware of the state of deterioration of Dunsink Observatory where Sir William Rowan Hamilton, regarded as Ireland’s most eminent mathematician, had served as Astronomer Royal. Following discussions with his former professor, Professor Thrift, Provost of Trinity College and a successor of Hamilton’s at Dunsink, and with Professor Whittaker, former Astronomer Royal, he concluded that something should be done to revive astronomical activity at the Observatory, and that an institute of higher learning, based on the Princeton model, should be established.

By 1935 the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton had three Schools: Mathematics, Humanistic Studies, and Economics and Politics, with Albert Einstein as the first Professor of the School of Mathematics. As De Valera’s primary focus was on Mathematics (he favoured a federation which would embrace Irish learning and medical research) he requested Whittaker to make contact with Schrödinger as Max Born and Einstein were unavailable. Whittaker reported back to De Valera on 25 March 1938 that Schrödinger would like to accept an invitation from the Taoiseach to come to Dublin and that Von Laue was unavailable, although Heitler should be considered.

De Valera then formulated his concept for a School of Theoretical Physics which might have Conway, Whittaker and Schrödinger as Professors, and he instructed his secretary, Maurice Moynihan to:

  • ascertain from the Department of Justice whether any difficulty would arise in regard to the admission of Dr. Schrödinger to the country
  • prepare a draft letter to Schrödinger
  • study a pamphlet on the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey
  • discuss the situation with Mr. O’Neill, Secretary of the Department of Education
  • ask Professor Whittaker to prepare a scheme for a School of Theoretical Physics

On 16 September 1938, Schrödinger accepted a provisional offer of a professorship in the Institute and on 19 November 1938 he visited Dublin to attend a luncheon in the Taoiseach’s room in Leinster House along with Professors Thrift and McConnell (Trinity College), Professor Conway (University College Dublin), the Minister for Education, T. O’Derrig, Mr. J. P. Walsh (External Affairs) and his own secretary, Maurice Moynihan. During the lunch De Valera outlined his plan for an Institute for Advanced Studies embracing a School of Celtic Learning, a School of Theoretical Physics, and a School of Medical Research, with possible additional sections to be added on later.

After lunch Moynihan arranged for Schrödinger to have an hour-long interview with Mr. Duff, Department of Justice, regarding the admission to Ireland of his wife and a third party, Frau Märch. Schrödinger left Ireland, having met again with the Taoiseach and having been assured that if he (Schrödinger) had any difficulty he was to call him (De Valera). As Frau Märch had a family, it was unusual (to say the least) that Schrödinger did not anticipate that there would be difficulties associated with her visa. Schrödinger did not trouble De Valera with his own or his wife’s visa – “But in the case of our friend, Frau Heldegrund Märch from Innsbruck, you advised me, Sir, to apply to yourself.”

“Mrs. Märch is holding an ordinary (non Jewish) German (not ex-Austrian) passport. She does, of course, not intend to go in for any work of any kind and I take personal responsibility for her entertainment as well as for her never causing any trouble to you, Sir, or your country.”

The Taoiseach gave formal approval on 29 March 1939 to a memorandum on the Institute with reservations about a single Governing Body. The model for the School for Theoretical Physics included provision for professors, visiting professors, lecturers and students, including students from abroad. Professors would be expected to deliver every year six public lectures ‘of not less than one hour duration’. De Valera suggested that one of the professors should have the title of Director and saw the first holder of this office as being ‘naturally’ Professor Conway. Conway was not in favour of public lectures and wrote: “A public lecture on a subject of research would probably be understood in a small centre like Dublin by perhaps two people.”

The debate in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) on the Institute was lively and the opposition to establishing a School of Theoretical Physics was such that it prompted Schrödinger to suggest to De Valera that … “I cannot shut my eyes to the possibility that – in the way of compromise between the champions and opponents – the bill may be passed with the amendment of dropping the Institute of Theoretical Physics.”

De Valera assuaged Schrödinger’s fears and informed him that there was every likelihood of getting the legislation enacted before Christmas, and the Institute in operation by January 1940, and as a riposte to Mulcahy’s comments, which had prompted Schrödinger’s chagrin, he stated:

“There are people who are available as professors or fellows, or whatever name we wish to give them in that school. I do not want to go into the matter now, because it is only when we have the bill before us, and the scheme completely copperfastened, so to speak, that we will be in a position to mention names. But I know that we will be able to get three men of world reputation in that particular branch to start with. I venture to say that, when it is established, from the point of view of the eminence of the people in it, there will be no school in the world which can say it has better direction or better material than will be in the theoretical school. “

1.2 Schrödinger’s arrival

The outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 secured Schrödinger’s prompt passage to Ireland, and on 5 October 1939 he arrived in Dublin. As it now looked as if some months would elapse before the Institute could be formally established, De Valera arranged for Schrödinger to be engaged in a course of lectures in UCD under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA). By February of 1940 Schrödinger approached De Valera regarding a full-time position he had been offered in India, but by this time De Valera was able to assure him that the Bill for the establishment of the Institute would be passed before the summer recess and that if there was any unforeseen delay, he could arrange for the extension of the Academy Professorship. Schrödinger agreed to stay, but Sir Edmund Whittaker, De Valera’s former teacher, felt that Edinburgh at war had first call on his services, and with Conway’s accession to the Presidency of UCD, it was left to Schrödinger – who had previously stated that he was “a rather unpractical man, not skillful in that sort of planning….., not sufficiently acquainted with local imponderables which are all important to such an undertaking” – to become the School’s first Director.

The Institute for Advanced Studies Act, which was signed by President Douglas Hyde on 19 June 1940, enabled the Government to set up Constituent Schools in the Institute by Establishment Order laying down the scope of their activities. As De Valera himself put it:

“They (the schools) will be devoted solely to the advance of learning and the establishment of the reputation of our country as a centre of learning which will bring students of the postgraduate type from abroad.”

Before the legislation was enacted, the Irish Times, in an editorial entitled ‘Irish Culture’, stated:

“We welcome the Bill, not for itself alone, but the evidence which it contains that this country is leaving behind at last its parochialism, its suspicions and its petty jealousies; that instead of prattling childishly any longer about imagined slights and ill-treatments, it intends to take its entitled place as a free adult among neighbour nations!”

When the legislation was enacted the Irish Press, in an editorial entitled “Scholarship”, stated:

“Today we have a mature Government determined to revive our country’s ancient reputation for culture, and ready to encourage scholarship wherever it exists in our midst. The leeway to be made up is, it is true, enormous, and many a year will pass before the seeds which are now being sown yield their full harvest. But a glorious beginning has been made. The Institute for Advanced Studies can hardly fail in time to produce results which will redound to the honour of the nation!”

The Governing Board of the School had its first meeting in the Minister’s room, 1 Hume Street, on Thursday 21 November 1940 at 4:15 pm. The Taoiseach welcomed the members on behalf of the President and the Government. The first item on the agenda was a proposal by the Chairman of the Board, Dr. Conway, “that Professor Erwin Schrödinger, M.A., Ph. D., D. Sc., be appointed Director of the School of Theoretical Physics”, which was seconded by Professor A. J. McConnell and carried unanimously. At the same meeting it was decided that a position as Junior Professor be offered to Dr. Heitler.


Text extracted from the 50 Year Report