Obituaries: George Handelman

November 16, 2008

George Handelman, 1921–2008

Long-time SIAM supporter George Handelman, professor emeritus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, died on September 13, 2008, at the age of 87. Within days, two former SIAM presidents were in touch with SIAM News, hoping to help commemorate their friend and colleague. In doing so, in the two pieces that follow, they also offer a glimpse of an exciting time in U.S. applied mathematics.

Fifty years ago, there was little applied mathematics in U.S. universities. At Rens-selaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, engineers took calculus and differential equations from profs like "Ma and Pa" (Ralph and Antoinette) Huston, who had the students present their solutions at blackboards around the classroom, but never did any new math. In the early '50s, some ambitious administrator decided that it was time to bring in mathematicians who would teach and do research in the practical directions set by RPI founder Stephen van Rensselaer and first professor Amos Eaton.

In 1955, as part of this plan, RPI hired George Handelman from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. George arrived in Troy with a colleague, Hirsh Cohen, and a team of recent Carnegie PhDs, including Elsa and Bill Boyce, Dick DiPrima, George Habetler, Mel Jacobson, Carl Lemke, Ed Rogers, and Jim Voytuk. The timing was right. Sputnik would soon spark the creation of graduate programs in science and engineering, and applied math programs were under way at Brown (where George was among the first PhDs, in 1946), NYU, MIT, Harvard, and elsewhere. SIAM had been founded a few years earlier, mostly through the efforts of Ed Block (who had entered Harvard as a grad student shortly after George left, having received his undergraduate degree in 1941). Math graduates were sought after by industry and government labs, as well as colleges and universities, with expanding expectations as to what they could contribute.

The Handelman department was ambitious, branching out from continuum mechanics to biomechanics, stability, and perturbation theory, and encouraging collaborations with colleagues like Ed Fox in mechanics and Fred Ling in lubrication theory. Quality teaching was pushed by colleagues like Hill Huntington and Bob Resnick in physics. By 1965, George's former students Boyce and DiPrima had written the differential equations text that, now in its eighth edition, is still the top seller in the field worldwide. George regularly taught FOAM, or Foundations of Applied Mathematics, to more advanced students. Those lively and challenging lectures fit the philosophy espoused by C.C. Lin at MIT and Lee Segel at RPI, and are the basis for much of two volumes by Lin, Segel, and Handelman (both reprinted in the SIAM Classics series).

In his years as department chair (1960–72), George hired many talented young faculty, appreciating their differences but always seeking people who would be congenial and hardworking with respect to both teaching and research. Increasingly, the RPI department of mathematical sciences attracted good graduate students, encouraged scientific computation, and had international visitors. Among George's great successes was persuading Joe Diaz to join the department as an Einstein Professor at a very competitive salary. Diaz, who was the first recipient of a PhD in applied math at Brown, was a fluid dynamicist. RPI's successful brand of applied math education was spread by its publications and graduates, and by people like Hirsh Cohen, who left for IBM–Yorktown Heights, Lee Segel, who went to the Weizmann Institute, Bernie Matkowsky, who moved to Northwestern, and Garry Odell, who joined the zoology department at the University of Washington.

George was deeply involved in activities of SIAM and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Dick DiPrima, even more avid when it came to those organizations and their extensive committee work, also took on more administrative and grant-related efforts within the department at RPI, and he succeeded George as head when George became dean of RPI's School of Science (1972–78).

"I will never forget George," says Ed Block, SIAM managing director emeritus. "I don't remember whether he got Dick DiPrima interested in SIAM, or vice versa. . . . I think it was George who first encouraged RPI faculty to support SIAM, even after he became dean. At the time, RPI's math department probably had more active SIAM members than any other institution." Ed looks back on numerous SIAM meetings of all kinds at RPI. "It wasn't the easiest place to get to," he says, "but the enthusiasm was there." RPI also had one of the first student chapters, he points out.

George was a natural, if unusual, dean. His curiosity and broad interests and reading prepared him well for the job. He came to the office each day in bow tie and tweed jacket, with a couple of favorite pipes, accompanied by his dog. When an interview or meeting ceased being productive, he'd often need to take the dog for a walk. Characteristically, George became close friends with some of his fellow deans.

On stepping down as dean, George returned to the math sciences department as Amos Eaton Professor and devoted his last years at RPI to outstanding teaching, the book review section of SIAM Review (which he edited from 1984 to 1990), and research with Jane Koretz on changes in the ability of the aging human eye to focus. That research was described in a Scientific American cover article in 1988. George always found his students to be uniquely fascinating individuals, and he naturally earned prestigious awards for mentoring and advising them.

George treated his students and colleagues as family. He was, however, dedicated to his own family. He met Marcia, his wife of fifty-nine years, at Pembroke. Although she had an active and successful career, she was also his confidante and a charming hostess to hundreds of applied mathematicians. They had two daughters and two grandsons. George idolized all of them.

This good mensch will be remembered fondly by his many students, colleagues, and friends.---Bob O'Malley, University of Washington.


My first sight of George Handelman was in a classroom at Brown in September 1947. The course was Theory of Elasticity; it was my first graduate course and the first one George ever taught. There he was, a slightly round young man with an eager, open expression, a blue button-down shirt and a bow tie, a description of George that would hold for many decades. Those were still chalk, blackboard, and eraser days, so George filled the room with Love (A.E.H., of Love wave fame), and perhaps a touch of Sokolnikoff, who together had created a slightly updated version of elasticity as part of Brown's special war-time mechanics school. George joined that program as it was beginning, and he spent the war years working on military problems for the Applied Mathematics Panel* and earning his PhD.

Those were lively days at Brown; it and NYU had the only centers for applied math on this side of the Atlantic. In the spring of 1947, Brown's Graduate Division of Applied Mathematics emerged from the war-time program. Applied math then meant mostly mechanics, elasticity, plasticity, and fluid mechanics. The faculty, drawn together by Willie Prager after the visitors from the war years had left, were also mostly quite young: George Carrier, C.C. Lin, Erastus Lee, Wally Hayes, and others, all getting their academic starts and then going on to careers elsewhere. Both the faculty and the students would form a generating cadre for the field as it began to develop in the U.S.

George's contributions to my education and development were many. He was a marvelous teacher, determined to make the physics and the math not only clear, but logically and rewardingly related. And he was a caring and remembering friend. My contribution to his education and welfare took a different form. One evening in the early summer of 1948, we walked over to the Quonset hut on the Brown campus that was still serving as a cafeteria. As we were sitting down with our trays, I saw some young ladies whose names I knew. I introduced George and we joined them. One of them was Marcia, and by the time we had all finished supper, a 60-year romance had begun. George went off to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) that fall; soon Marcia followed and they were married.

At Carnegie, which had brought in John Synge, an eminent Irish applied mathematician (and Cathleen Morawetz's father), from Dublin and Toronto, George was joining the first of the Brown offspring---Herb Greenberg, Joaquin (Joe) Diaz, and Bob Meacham---and several others to form a broad and vital applied math group. Dick DiPrima, Carl Lemke, Bill Dorn, Bob Gilbert, and Bill Boyce were among the first graduate students. I was fortunate to hear from George about an opening in the department in 1953; when I arrived, fresh from Haifa with a new wife and son, there were George and Marcia, supplying not only a job but also lots of help and care (furniture, baby-sitting, a used TV set).

George and I began working on problems for the Air Force that had to do with planes constructed of panels on which instruments like radios or indicators were mounted: What happened when the vibrations in those propeller-driven planes made the whole assemblage move? George was a scrupulous researcher who could carefully put together the key physical variables, bring the equations of mechanics to bear correctly, and carry through to what could be offered for a solution at that pre-computer time. By 1955, when we'd finished a few pieces of that work, Synge had left, the atmosphere at Carnegie had cooled, and off we went again.

George and I ended up at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where, with Bernie Fleishman, we were the beginning of the applied math group. As it happened, my family and I spent the summer of 1955 in California and arrived in Troy only as school was about to begin. Once again, there were George and Marcia, already thoroughly immersed in the Trojan mysteries of apartments, schools, and shops, not to mention relations with a somewhat crotchety academic administration that was just about to emerge from the 19th century. DiPrima, Lemke, and Boyce soon joined us, and we were off on the creation of another Brown–Carnegie offspring. We went at it in earnest, inventing courses like FOAM, Foundations of Applied Mathematics, and trying to teach RPI's hockey players some mathematics. I'll leave the rest of the RPI story to others. It's a great one, and George played a central role, not only in developing math but also in making RPI a modern and useful center of learning and research.

I spent a large part of my early working life learning from George Handelman and the rest of it understanding and feeling what a great friend he was. For all of which I am very, very grateful.---Hirsh Cohen.

*Created in 1942 within the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development to solve mathematical problems related to the military effort in World War II.

Photographs courtesy of Donald Drew, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube