April 1, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 13

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    Alfred Putnam, 88, influenced mathematics education

    Alfred Putnam, a University 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 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 and the College. “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’s College Mathematics Staff, a special group of mathematicians who provided the core mathematics requirement in the undergraduate College during the Hutchins era. 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.

    Putnam later helped merge the College Mathematics Staff with the Department of Mathematics, which centralized the programs. Northrop and Putnam also introduced three different, rigorous calculus sequences for Chicago undergraduates. The multiple-sequence system, which the University still uses, enables every undergraduate student to take calculus based on placement test performance.

    “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 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.

    Putnam became an instructor at Yale University in 1942 and joined the Chicago faculty as an Assistant Professor in Mathematics in 1945. He became Professor Emeritus in Mathematics in 1987. He twice received the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, in 1952 and 1985.

    His wife, Maryann, a retired teacher of the Laboratory Schools; one sister, Mary Jane Roberts; and a niece, Cynthia McCabe, survive Putnam.

    A simple service at Bond Chapel will be held in Putnam’s memory at noon Thursday, April 15.