At the opening of Cornell, in October 1868, about 420 students enrolled. Professor E.W. Evans and Assistant Professor Z.H. Potter taught mathematics in classrooms situated in the south building, now known as Morrill Hall. Cascadilla Hall and the south building were the only two finished buildings. The north building, now White Hall, opened in 1869.
The two most prominent Cornell mathematicians of this early period are James Oliver and James McMahon. They taught advanced mathematics, wrote research articles and supervised the first graduate students of the department. Cornell awarded seven mathematics doctorates during these first 30 years including three to women. Arthur Rollin Harris who received his doctorate in 1888 went on to pursue a successful research career in mathematics and applied mathematics. He became one of the world foremost experts of his time on the theory of tides.
In 1895, Ernst Ritter, a student and collaborator of F. Klein and an outstanding mathematician from Germany, accepted an assistant professorship at Cornell. He crossed the Atlantic that summer but never reached Ithaca. Upon his arrival, he died from typhoid fever at Ellis Island. Earlier that spring, J. Oliver had passed away after serving as Chair of the department for 21 years.