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Archives Spotlight: The R.L. Moore Papers

The R.L. Moore Papers

By Kristy Sorensen

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the December 2004 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

The R.L. Moore Papers form a cornerstone collection of the Archives of American Mathematics (AAM). These papers consist of correspondence, research notebooks, drafts, teaching material, mathematical notes, printed material, photographs, and other material documenting the life and career of Robert Lee Moore.

Moore and students

Back row, left to right: R.E. Basye, E.C. Klipple, F. Burton Jones. Front row, left to right: C.W. Vickery, R.L. Moore, R.G. Lubben; ca. 1935. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The R.G. Lubben Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

R.L. Moore (1882-1974) was a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin for almost 50 years. He is well known for his work in point-set topologyâ??a term he coinedâ??but most remembered for his work as an educator. During his long career, Moore supervised 50 doctoral students, including three members of the National Academy of Sciences, three presidents of the American Mathematical Society, and five presidents of the Mathematical Association of America.

Moore showed early interest and aptitude in mathematics. Before entering college at the University of Texas at Austin, he taught himself calculus from a university textbook by covering the proofs and trying to work them out on his own, revealing one line at a time if he needed a hint. In graduate lectures at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1905, Moore would race to prove theorems himself before the professor showed the proofs. These experiences with discovery-based learning undoubtedly shaped his later teaching methods.

Moore's teaching methods, known as the Moore Method or the Texas Method, began with the careful selection of students with minimal experience with the course material. He would then ask questions to guide them in discovering theorems and proofs on their own, providing only the most basic definitions.

The students were not allowed to read any texts, discuss the problems among themselves, or seek help from other professors in the department. Instead of lectures, the classroom experience consisted of a student explaining his or her proof at the board while other students asked questions. If the student got stuck, or if a flaw was found in his or her proof, another student would take his or her place at the board.

The Moore Method has been extensively imitated and adapted. Moore conveyed to his students not only the joy of mathematical discovery and the power to create original mathematics, but also a passion for teaching. The method's effectiveness is perhaps most strikingly seen in the success of Moore's 50 doctoral students in producing more than 2,600 doctoral descendents total.

Although Moore's students consistently rated their courses with him as instrumental in their intellectual development, not all University of Texas mathematics students had these experiences with or memories of him. One such student, Raymond Johnson (University of Maryland, College Park), writes that his image of Moore is that of a mathematician who arrived at a topology lecture given by his mathematical grandsonâ??a student of Moore's student R.H. Bingâ??only to walk out of the lecture upon discovering that the speaker was black.

Moore held strong prejudices, and though he gradually overcame his reluctance to supervise female and Jewish doctoral students, he consistently, explicitly refused even to admit African American students to his courses. He remained a segregationist long after the University of Texas academically desegregated in the 1950s and his attitudes had fallen out of favor. Paul Halmos, while honoring Moore's significance and effectiveness in mathematics teaching, described him as both an extraordinary mathematician and an "ethnically prejudiced reactionary."

As a prominent figure at the University of Texas, in topology, and in the mathematical community, Moore had extensive influence. Although professors were officially required to retire by age 70â??with the provision that they could continue working half time, with permission, on a yearly basisâ??he continued working full time, but for half pay. Finally, the university required him to retire in 1969, at age 86. He had supervised 28 additional doctoral theses between his 70th birthday and his retirement.

Notes by Moore

Undated notes by R.L. Moore. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The R.L. Moore Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The majority of the R.L. Moore Papers collection pertains to Moore's professional life. Moore's professional correspondence provides a rich look into his career and his relationship with his contemporaries. A section on mathematical works includes published and unpublished items by Moore and others. It also contains an extensive collection of Moore's notes and drafts. Insight into Moore as a teacher can be gained from many of the papers. Administrative correspondence, departmental business, class records, and notes and correspondence about Challenge in the Classroom, the 1967 MAA film about Moore's teaching style, are included. Other sections of Moore's professional life, including his presidency of the American Mathematical Society and his relationship with George Bruce Halsted, are also represented in this series.

The personal series documents Moore's family life, hobbies, health, and finances, and it includes subseries on correspondence, family, education, health, finances, genealogy, automobiles and motoring, rezoning, notes, printed material, and photographs. Moore corresponded with many of his family members, but the deepest correspondence was with his brother, Jennings Moore. In general, only the letters received by Moore are present, although in some cases, drafts or copies of Moore's letters are included in the collection.

In addition to his papers, the AAM also has books, offprints, and journals from Moore's personal library, as well as a set of dissertations from some of Moore and H.S. Wall's graduate students. Many of Moore's students also have collections at the AAM that contain correspondence with or other information about Moore.

A biography of R.L. Moore, using sources from the AAM, will be published by the MAA later this year.

Kristy Sorensen served as the archivist at the Archives of American Mathematics until November 2006.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist:, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.