In 1934, Richard Courant joined the faculty of New York University, where he began to build the nucleus of a small research group. The character of that group reflected the style of work done at the famous institute in Göttingen, Germany, where he had been a student of David Hilbert.

Courant's published papers were in variational problems, finite difference methods, minimal surfaces, and partial differential equations. He encouraged the publication of mathematical texts and high quality monographs, one example of which is Methods of Mathematical Physics by Courant and Hilbert. He is perhaps best known for his scientific organizing and leadership talents, which culminated in the Institute named after him.

K.O. Friedrichs said of his friend and long-time colleague:

"One cannot appreciate Courant's scientific achievements simply by enumerating his published work. To be sure, this work was original, significant, beautiful; but it had a very particular flavor: it never stood alone; it was always connected with problems and methods of other fields of science, drawing inspiration from them and in turn inspiring them."