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March 16, 2004 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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Alfred L. Putnam, Mathematician, 1916-2004

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Alfred Putnam


Alfred Putnam, a University of Chicago Mathematics professor who helped influence the direction of U.S. mathematics education in the 1950s and 1960s, and who played a leading role in disseminating mathematical literature research from the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, died of cancer on Thursday, March 11, at his home in Chesterton, Ind. He was 88.

Putnam began examining the state of mathematics education in Eastern Europe even before the Soviet Union shocked the Western world with its technological prowess by successfully launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The previous year, Putnam had received a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct the Survey of Recent East European Mathematical Literature. At that time, such a grant was almost unheard of.

“You had to convince the NSF that there were excellent developments in mathematics education and literature in the Soviet Union,” said Izaak Wirszup, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics at the University of Chicago. “After Sputnik it was much easier.”

Putnam’s project led to the translation and publication of more than 30 widely acclaimed books on mathematics education and research by world-class Soviet research mathematicians, said Wirszup, who co-directed the project.

Putnam was former chairman of the University of Chicago’s College Mathematics Staff, a special group of mathematicians who provided the core mathematics requirement in the undergraduate College during Robert Hutchins’ term as University president. Under Putnam and his predecessor as Chairman, Eugene Northrop, the College Mathematics Staff created a new sequence of undergraduate mathematics courses that emphasized the foundation of mathematics.

“The University of Chicago College Mathematics program was imitated by mathematics programs all over the United States,” Wirszup said. The program also “directly and strongly influenced the reform of elementary and secondary school mathematics” both in this country and abroad, he said.

Putnam later helped merge the College Mathematics Staff with the Department of Mathematics, which centralized graduate and undergraduate mathematics education at the University.

Northrop and Putnam also introduced three different, rigorous calculus sequences for University of Chicago undergraduates. The multiple-sequence system, which the University still uses today, enables every undergraduate student at the University to take calculus based on their performance on placement tests.

“This was a new idea in American college mathematics programs,” Wirszup said. Previously, mathematics educators thought that not every student could learn calculus, “but here it was done,” he said.

Putnam provided an excellent role model for teaching calculus to freshmen who were less accomplished in mathematics, said Diane Herrmann, a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Chicago. Herrmann began working closely with Putnam in 1977 as an apprentice calculus teacher and second-year graduate student.

Herrmann recalled that Putnam used to bring all of the calculus teaching assistants together regularly for lunch at the University of Chicago’s faculty club. “It really lent a seriousness to what we were doing and made us feel like colleagues of his instead of just graduate students,” she said. “He really wanted to foster a collegial relationship among those of us who were teaching in the same course so that we were consistent with our students.”

Putnam was born March 10, 1916, in Dunkirk, N.Y. He received his B.S. degree from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., in 1938, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1942. At Harvard he studied under Saunders Mac Lane, now the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Mathematics at the University of Chicago and a recipient of the National Medal of Science.

Putnam became an instructor at Yale University in 1942 and an Assistant Professor in Mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1945. Later, two former students of Mac Lane’s would join Putnam as members of the Chicago Mathematics faculty. Putnam became Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Chicago in 1987. During his long career at Chicago, he twice received the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, in 1952 and 1985.

“I remember how surprised he was when the knock came on his door and the president’s letter appeared” informing him of his second Quantrell Award, said his wife, Maryann Putnam. “All he thought of was he had to go to another meeting.”

Her husband loved to garden, she said. “He grew nine kinds of basil. He was known as the ‘Basil Man’ at the Chelberg Farm,” part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. “He loved the dunes,” she said.

Alfred Putnam is survived by his wife, Maryann, a retired teacher of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools; one sister, Mary Jane Roberts; and a niece, Cynthia McCabe. A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 16, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Michigan City, Ind.
Last modified at 12:52 PM CST on Tuesday, March 16, 2004.

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