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In memoriam: Arthur Everett Pitcher

Arthur Everett Pitcher, a professor of mathematics at Lehigh University and an expert in Morse theory, passed away in early December at the age of 94. Prior to his retirement in 1978, Pitcher served on the Lehigh faculty for 40 years, influencing generations of students during his tenure.

After his retirement, Pitcher continued to remain involved with Lehigh, serving as University Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

“The Lehigh Department of Mathematics was very close to his heart and the heart of his wife, Theresa, who passed away in 2001,” says Steven Weintraub, professor and department chair.

“Their generosity in endowing the Everett Pitcher Fund for the Propagation of Mathematics has greatly enriched the department. For over 20 years, the annual Pitcher Lecture series has brought some of the most eminent mathematicians in the world to Lehigh. More recently, we have established the Pitcher Chair in Mathematics, now held by Huai-Dong Cao, and the Pitcher Research Scholars in Mathematics, held by younger mathematicians on a rotating basis.”

Weintraub came to Lehigh at a point when Pitcher was in his late 80s, and recalls a man “very charming, still full of interesting reminiscences.

“I’d pick him up every Wednesday and drive him to faculty colloquia, and I always enjoyed the time we spent together,” Weintraub says. “Well into his 90s, he was still very sharp and intellectually alive.”

Emphasis on research

Pitcher was widely known beyond Lehigh, serving as secretary for the American Mathematical Society (AMS) for 22 years. And, after he retired from his professorship, he continued his research, most recently on a problem known as the Poincaré Conjecture.

As a scholar, Pitcher is credited by his colleagues in the mathematical field for his work in topology, a large branch of mathematics that defines and studies properties of spaces.

“One was publicizing exact sequences, a fundamental concept in the subject, about which he wrote the first paper and proved many of the basic properties,” says Don Davis, professor of mathematics who presented an overview of Pitcher’s career on the celebration of Pitcher’s 90th birthday.

“The other was realizing how Morse theory, which had been developed by his thesis advisor, could be applied to homotopy theory. This turned out to have tremendously important applications, although he was really only involved at the start."

Davis also notes that Pitcher was “by far, the most important person in building up the department from a service department to one which is heavily involved in mathematical research.”

Born in Hanover, N.H., in 1912, Pitcher was the son of mathematical parents: His father received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago under E.H. Moore, and his mother was a math teacher.

Pitcher earned his A.B. from Case Western Reserve University in 1932, and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1935, under the direction of Marston Morse, the mathematician best known for his work on the calculus of variations in the large. Morse’s work led to his introduction of an important technique in differential topology, now widely known as Morse theory.

After two research appointments, Pitcher joined the faculty of Lehigh in 1938, and spent nearly all of the rest of his academic career here. He served as chair of the department from 1960 until his retirement 18 years later.

He was a founder of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, a member of its Board of Trustees from 1961 to 1963, and an AMS Associate Secretary from 1959 to 1966, before serving as Secretary of the AMS from 1966 to 1988. In 1985, his distinguished service was recognized by the Mathematical Association of America.

--Linda Harbrecht


Posted on Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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