Tom Lehrer

On this Day:

On June 9, 1650 The Harvard Corporation, the more powerful of the two administrative boards of Harvard, was established. It is the first legal corporation in the Americas, predating the Hudson’s Bay Company by 20 years.

The President and Fellows of Harvard College (also called the Harvard Corporation or just the Corporation) is the smaller and more powerful of Harvard University’s two governing boards, the other being its Board of Overseers. Together, the two boards exercise institutional roles more commonly consolidated into a board of trustees.

Although the institution it governs has grown into a university of which Harvard College is one component, the corporation’s formal title remains “The President and Fellows of Harvard College”.


In 1650, at the request of Harvard President Henry Dunster, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts issued the body’s charter, making it now the oldest corporation in the Americas. The subsequent Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts confirmed that, despite the change in government due to the American Revolution, the corporation would continue to “have, hold, use, exercise and enjoy” its property and legal privileges.

The corporation was probably originally intended to be a body of the school’s resident instructors, similar to the fellows of an Oxbridge college. However, it fell into the now-familiar American model of a governing board—an outside body whose members are not involved in the institution’s daily life, which meets periodically to consult with the day-to-day head, the president (whom it appoints). The Corporation is self-perpetuating, appointing new members to fill its own vacancies as they arise. The Charter of 1650 established the Harvard Corporation board which consisted of seven members: a President, five Fellows, and a Treasurer. The Corporation had the authority to manage the College’s finances, real estate, and donations, act as a legal entity in courts of law, select officers and servants, and create orders and bylaws for the College, with the approval of the Board of Overseers.

The founding members of the Harvard Corporation were respectively : Henry Dunster as President, Samuel Mather, Samuel Danforth, Jonathan Mitchell, Comfort Starr and Samuel Eaton as the five Fellows and Thomas Danforth as the Treasurer. These men had, in perpetual succession, the duties of managing the College.

For most of its history, the Corporation consisted of six fellows in addition to the president. But after the abortive presidency of Lawrence Summers and a large endowment decline in 2008–2009, a year-long governance review was conducted. In December 2010, it announced that the Corporation’s “composition, structure, and practices” would be greatly altered: the number of fellows would increase from six to twelve, with prescribed terms of service, and several new committees would endeavor to improve the group’s integration with the activities of the University as a whole, especially its long-term planning.

First, a Joke:

A linguistics professor at Harvard was lecturing his class.

He said, “In English, a double negative forms a positive. However, in some other languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

Second, a Song:

Thomas Andrew Lehrer (/ˈlɛərər/; born April 9, 1928) is a retired American musician, singer-songwriter, satirist, and mathematician, having lectured on mathematics and musical theater. He is best known for the pithy and humorous songs that he recorded in the 1950s and 1960s. His songs often parodied popular musical forms, though he usually created original melodies when doing so. A notable exception is “The Elements”, in which he set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

Lehrer’s early musical work typically dealt with non-topical subject matter and was noted for its black humor in songs such as “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. In the 1960s, he produced a number of songs that dealt with social and political issues of the day, particularly when he wrote for the U.S. version of the television show That Was the Week That Was. The popularity of these songs has far outlasted their topical subjects and references. Lehrer quoted a friend’s explanation: “Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.” In the early 1970s, Lehrer largely retired from public performances to devote his time to teaching mathematics and musical theater history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lehrer graduated Bachelor of Arts in mathematics from Harvard University, magna cum laude, in 1946. At Harvard, he was the roommate of the Canadian theologian Robert Crouse. He received his AM degree the next year and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He later taught mathematics and other classes at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Lehrer remained in Harvard’s doctoral program for several years, taking time out for his musical career and to work as a researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Lehrer was drafted into the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957, working at the National Security Agency (NSA). Lehrer has stated that he invented the Jello shot during this time, as a means of circumventing a naval base’s ban on alcoholic beverages. Despite holding a master’s degree in an era when American conscripts often lacked a high school diploma, Lehrer served as an enlisted soldier, achieving the rank of Specialist Third Class, which he described as being a “corporal without portfolio”. These experiences became fodder for songs, such as “The Wild West is Where I Want to Be” and “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier”. In 2020 Lehrer publicly revealed that he had been assigned to the NSA, since the mere fact of its existence was classified at the time; this left him in the position of implicitly using nuclear weapons work as a cover story for something more sensitive.

In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time math studies at Harvard.

From 1962, Lehrer taught in the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1965 he gave up on his mathematics dissertation on modes in statistics, after having worked on it intermittently for 15 years.

In 1972, Lehrer joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching an introductory course entitled The Nature of Mathematics to liberal arts majors—”math for tenors”, according to Lehrer. He also taught a class in musical theater. He occasionally performed songs in his lectures.

In 2001, Lehrer taught his last mathematics class, on the topic of infinity, and retired from academia. He has remained in the area, and in 2003 said he still “hangs out” around the University of California, Santa Cruz (per Wikipedia).

JanHammer states on “Of the wonderfully wacky singer/songwriters of my era perhaps none was more so than the Harvard undergrad and later Harvard & MIT mathematics professor Tom Lehrer. Here is a tune he penned in 1945 wherein he admonishes his schools athletic team to fight fiercely. He was a first class satirist as is demonstrated by this tune. Here is the official unofficial Harvard fight song.”

Here is Tom Lehrer’s song “Fight Fiercely Harvard”.  We hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Ask five economists and you’ll get five different answers – six if one went to Harvard.” – Edgar Fiedler

Enjoy the Smile? Subscribe:

Follow the Smile on Facebook:

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

Leave a Reply