Hassler Whitney

March 23, 1907 – May 10, 1989

Brief Biography

Hassler Whitney was born in New York City to State Supreme Court judge Edward B. Whitney and local artist and politician Josepha Newcomb Whitney. The young Whitney attended Yale University, where he received degrees in both physics and music, playing the viola and violin. He went on to Harvard University where he studied under George Birkoff and completed his PhD dissertation on graph theory. As a geometrician, Whitney made important contributions to singularity theory and topology. He spent his first postdoctoral years at Harvard prior to joining the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1935.

Among his other contributions, Whitney is credited as the original source of what would become the travelling salesman problem (TSP). Merrill M. Flood, the Princeton PhD who popularized first it, was introduced to the problem by Albert W. Tucker. Tucker, in turn, traced his knowledge and developments of the problem back to a series of conversations held with Whitney in the early 1930s. Whitney’s work on the TSP was similar to many of his topological studies and route planning, including the plotting of a tour around the globe that visits each and every country once and only once.     

Whitney introduced the axioms for an algebraic structure he called matroids in 1935. A matroid M is a finite set S and a collection F of subsets of S, called independent sets, which play a role analogous to bases for a vector space. Whitney’s development on the subject found use in graph theory, networks, and combinatorial optimization. His original matroids were revisited in the 1950s and 1960s by leading mathematicians such as William Tutte and Jack Edmonds.

Later in his career, Whitney became actively involved in educational problems at the elementary school level. He traveled across the United States, lecturing on the subject and spent four months teaching pre-algebraic mathematics courses to seventh graders. Whitney was lauded for his attempt to ease “mathematics anxiety” in education, preventing students from wanting to shun the subject in their later years. He called for “better attitudes” in education to develop children into complete and successful human beings rather than simple memorizers taught how to pass a test.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and an Honorary Member of the London Mathematical Society, Whitney received a number of honors in his lifetime. United States President Jimmy Carter awarded him the National Medal of Science in 1976 “for founding, and bringing to maturity, the discipline of differential topology.” He was presented with the Leeroy P. Steele Prize of the American Mathematical Society in 1985 for his fundamental work on geometric problems. Whitney was an active outdoorsman and mountain climber, reaching the his first mountain peak as an undergraduate. He passed away after suffering a stroke. Whitney’s ashes rest atop Dents Blanches in the Swiss Alps.

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Hassler Whitney

History of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction. Hassley Whitney. Accessed June 16, 2015. (link)

University of St. Andrews School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences. Whitney Biography. Accessed June 16, 2015. (link)


Yale University, BA 1928 & 1929

Harvard University, PhD 1932 (Mathematics Genealogy)


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations
  • National Defense Research Committee
  • National Science Foundation

Key Interests in OR/MS


Oral Histories

Hassler Whitney (1984) Interview by Albert Tucker, April 10. The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s. The Trustees of Princeton, University. (transcript)


New York Times (1989) Hassler Whitney, Geometrician; He Eased 'Mathematics Anxiety'. May 12. (link)

Awards and Honors

National Academy of Sciences 1945

National Medal of Science 1976

London Mathematical Society Honorary Member 1980 

Wolf Foundation Prize in Mathematics 1982

Leroy P. Steele Prize 1985

Selected Publications

Whitney H. (1935) On the abstract properties of linear dependence. American Journal of Mathematics, 57: 509-533.

Whitney H. (1944) The self-intersections of a smooth n-manifold in 2n-space. Annals of Mathematics, 220-246. 

Whitney H. (1957) Geometric Integration Theory. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Whitney H. (1965) Tangenets to an analytic variety. Annals of Mathematics, 81(3): 496-549.

Whietney H. (1972) Complex Analytic Varieties. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: Boston, MA. 

Whitney H. (1992) Congruent graphs and the connectivity of graphs. Hassler Whitney Collected Papers, 61-79. Springer Science & Business Media: New York. 

Additional Resources

Eeles J. & Toledo D. (1992) Hassler Whitney Collect Papers, Volume I. Springer Science & Business Media: New York. (link)