William L. Duren, Jr. (1905-2008)
William Larkin Duren, Jr., mathematics professor and former
Dean at the University of Virginia whose pioneering work profoundly
influenced the national development of higher education, died on
April 4 in Charlottesville at the age of 102. The cause of death
was kidney failure. He had remained active both physically and
mentally throughout his life.
Professor Duren was born on November 10, 1905 in Macon,
Mississippi, the eldest of three children of William L. Duren
(1870-1965), a Methodist minister, and Ethel Bennett Duren
(1876-1962). After residing in several small towns in Mississippi,
the family moved to New Orleans in 1918. Duren attended Tulane
University, where he majored in mathematics, played on the football
team, and was a star athlete in track, winning the Southeastern
Conference championship in the high hurdles. He did graduate work in
mathematics at the University of Chicago, writing a doctoral thesis
in calculus of variations under the direction of G. A. Bliss. At
Chicago with Duren was his wife-to-be from New Orleans, Mary
Hardesty, a graduate student in zoology. They obtained their Ph.D.
degrees in the same Chicago commencement in 1930 and were married in
1931. They then lived in New Orleans while he taught at Tulane and
they raised three children. They spent the year 1936-37 at the
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was
assistant to Marston Morse on calculus of variations in the large.
There he became acquainted with a number of leading scientists such
as Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann, and Albert Einstein, and he formed
friendships with younger mathematicians who became important
colleagues as his career progressed.
During the Second World War, Duren served the Army Air Corps as
a civilian scientist, working in an operations analysis group based
in Colorado Springs. In collaboration with military personnel at
various locations, he devised and implemented improved strategies for
flexible gunnery and bombing. In later years he would view that
experience as the turning point of his career. From the success of
his war work he discovered that his talents lay more in general
science and administrative skills than in mathematics alone.
Appointed Chairman of the Tulane Mathematics Department in 1947, he
obtained a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to establish
a Ph.D. program that became a model for other such programs in the
South. Seeing a need for curriculum reform at the undergraduate
level, he worked through the Mathematical Association of America
(MAA) to form the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in
Mathematics, which operated for over 10 years and brought about
substantial improvements in curricula throughout the country.
In 1952-53, Duren was in Washington as the first Program
Director in Mathematics at the National Science Foundation. Under
his leadership, the NSF made grants to establish new Ph.D. programs
and funded a series of national summer institutes to help faculty
members improve their mathematical skills.
Two years later, Duren was elected President of the MAA. In
1955 he left Tulane to become Dean of the College of Arts and
Sciences at the University of Virginia. As Dean he worked closely
with President Colgate Darden, a former Governor of Virginia, to
begin a transformation of the University to high academic standing.
He was instrumental in negotiating new admissions policies that led
to a dramatic increase in graduation rate, creating the first
undergraduate library (the Clemons Library, still in use), founding
the Echols Scholars program to attract and nurture superior students,
and bringing racial integration to the College. Upon leaving the
Deanship in 1962, he was appointed the first University Professor,
allowing him to move to the School of Engineering, where he formed a
new Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. As Dean
and later, he fought for admission of women to the College, a battle
that was finally won in 1970.
Duren was awarded an honorary degree by Tulane University in
1959, and in 1967 he received the annual MAA Citation for
Distinguished Service to Mathematics.
After retirement in 1976, and up to two months before his
death, he continued to live in his home in Charlottesville, writing
historical articles for mathematicians, humorous essays about his
Mississippi boyhood and life in New Orleans, and more serious
essays. One, written at age 97, proposed an interdisciplinary
graduate degree in Arts and Sciences generally, as an antidote to the
over-specialization he saw in today's Ph.D. programs. Another, which
he delivered as a Colloquium lecture to the UVA Mathematics
Department on the occasion of his 100th birthday, surveyed his career
as a scientific generalist based in mathematics, with observations on
luminaries he had known and on the changes wrought by revolutionary
scientific developments in his lifetime.
After the death of his wife Mary in 1998, he resumed overseas
travel, regularly attended weekly seminars in operator theory
presented by the Mathematics Department, and continued exercising
three times a week at UVA's Cardiac Rehab and Wellness Center, a
habit he maintained for the last 20 years of his life, past age 102.
It was to his friends at Cardiac Rehab that he addressed most of his
essays, which took the form of annual birthday letters from age 90
Out of conviction that undergraduate education in American
universities had become too specialized and compartmentalized, Duren
made a substantial gift to Tulane University in 2000 to encourage
creation of a broader curriculum of multidisciplinary courses in the
College. This led Tulane to establish the Duren Professorship
Program, in which faculty members are selected each year to offer
such courses. The program has been quite popular.
In addition to his wife Mary, Professor Duren was preceded in
death by his brother James and sister Mary. He is survived by his
son Peter and daughter-in-law Gay of Ann Arbor, Michigan, his
daughter Sally Schloemann of Weston, Massachusetts, his son David and
daughter-in-law Jean of Silver Spring, Maryland, and three
grandchildren. A memorial celebration will be held in
Charlottesville on June 21. Memorial contributions in his name may
be made to the MAA or to the AMS.
For more information on Duren's life see The Washington Post obituary. For more on Duren's career click here.