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EPADEL:A Semisesquicentennial History, 1926-2000

Section 3.6 Profile: Arnold Dresden (1882-1954)

Arnold Dresden was born November 23, 1882 in Amsterdam, Holland, and began his undergraduate education at the University of Amsterdam. In 1903, before completing his program, and against the wishes of his parents, he came to the U. S. to help a friend who was living in Chicago, using tuition money to pay for boat passage to New York. After landing there, he made his way to Chicago, arriving on his 21 st birthday.
During his first two years in his adopted land, Dresden worked at various jobs, including stacking merchandise at Marshall Field’s wholesale warehouse at $10 a week. He also taught six classes at the high school associated with that university, called the Laboratory School, a task he faced with grave misgivings, not because of the long hours but because of anticipated ill behavior by the students. He stated, “In Holland we tortured our teachers.” Yet in America he had no trouble maintaining discipline.
By 1905 he had scraped together enough money to enroll at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. four years later with a dissertation, written under Oskar Bolza, on the calculus of variations titled “The second derivatives of the extremal integral”.
Upon graduation in 1909 Dresden accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin, where he remained until 1927. He became a naturalized citizen four years later. Dresden felt obligated to volunteer during World War I, so he sailed for France in September 1918 and spent one year working for the Red Cross.
The May 1927 Monthly heralded his arrival in the Philadelphia area nine months after the MAA 1  section was founded. “Professor Arnold Dresden of the University of Wisconsin has been appointed professor of mathematics at Swarthmore College. An interesting feature of his work in that college will be in connection with the honors course for juniors and seniors.” Dresden described this course in a 1931 lecture to the section. Minutes from that meeting record only that he gave “an account of the way in which this plan is realized, particularly in mathematics and the natural sciences.” Fortunately the Monthly note supplies more details:
Students in that course are not obliged to attend classes, are free to work at tasks assigned to them on which they have conferences with their instructors as often as may seem desirable. No grades or records are kept during these two years. At the end of the senior year they have to take a comprehensive examination covering the work of these two years and conducted both in oral and written parts by an outsider.
The honors program that Dresden designed required students to complete four seminars in mathematics and two seminars in each of two minors. That was the student’s whole course load during the last two years. External examiners conducted all assessment in honors. That is still the case today. Although parts of the system have been drastically revised, external examiners remain an integral part of the program.
Arnold Dresden was one of the most respected and effective leaders in both the AMS 2  and the MAA 3 . He became actively engaged with our section as soon as he set foot in the area. Two months after arriving at Swarthmore in September 1927, he presented an invited lecture, “On matrix equations”, reporting on a method developed by a former Wisconsin colleague. At the same 1927 meeting he was elected to the Program Committee; he would be elected again in 1939. He also was elected chair for 1931-1932 and 1940-1941.
Dresden was an early, ardent supporter of the MAA 4 , and he became a charter member. However, it wasn’t until his move to Swarthmore that he became active with the MAA 5 , beginning with a paper he delivered at the annual meeting in 1927. He was elected vice president for 1931 (A. A. Bennett followed him in 1933 and 1934) and president for 1933 (succeeding E. T. Bell).
Dresden began his publishing career in 1907 while a graduate student at Chicago with two papers on the calculus of variations in the Monthly. Part of his dissertation appeared in the Transactions the following year. [14] Further advances would occur in papers that appeared in 1916, 1917, and 1923. In the latter year he also published two papers on symmetric forms in n variables. But from that time on, with only a few exceptions, all future contributions seem to appear in the Monthly’s Problem or Discussions-Questions Departments.
At Swarthmore, as at Wisconsin, Dresden was known as much for his musical talent and interests as for his mathematics; his Monday evening chamber music sessions at Swarthmore were celebrated. Swarthmore students adored him. The alumni magazine gushed, “Of all the people on Swarthmore’s faculty, one of the most beloved is a man who could easily be mistaken for Santa Claus, both in spirit and in the flesh.” When asked about the history of his beard, called “the finest hirsute adornment on campus”, he replied, “Why, I’ve had it ever since I was born.”
Arnold Dresden resided in the town of Swarthmore from the time of his appointment in 1927 until his death in 1954 at age 71. When he retired in 1952, his replacement was future EPADEL governor David Rosen.