Gerard Washnitzer, a Princeton University professor of mathematics emeritus known for his work in algebraic geometry, died April 2 in hospice in Scotch Plains. He was 91.
Colleagues and family recalled Washnitzer as an avid reader who loved history as much as mathematics — particularly the history of mathematics. He exercised his extensive knowledge on topics in spirited yet friendly debates, and by pushing his students intellectually.
“Gerry was always very much interested in the history of mathematics, somewhat unusual among real mathematicians, and he taught the rather rare history of mathematics courses in the department before he retired,” said Robert Gunning, a Princeton professor of mathematics.
“He read widely and was always interested in discussing or debating current events and current mathematics — a lively addition to the math department,” Gunning said. “He loved a good argument, so he was always willing to take on criticism more for the sake of a good argument then for any urge to always be right — but he was so often right.”
Washnitzer received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton in 1950 and joined the Princeton faculty as a professor of mathematics in 1963. He was hired to strengthen the department’s algebra contingent. Washnitzer was fascinated with the historical development of various areas of mathematics, and would often scour old, obscure mathematics papers for ideas that would spark his own thinking — and a lively discussion, Gunning said.
Washnitzer’s quick mind and exuberance also came out in his role as an educator, Gunning said. “His lectures were memorably wild, with some notable digressions when he was struck by a different idea or an alternative approach to a problem,” he said.
Colleagues said Washnitzer embraced a sea change occurring in pure mathematics and algebra during the 1960s that was led by German-born French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck. In 1968, Washnitzer and Paul Monsky, now a professor emeritus of mathematics at Brandeis University, introduced the Monsky-Washnitzer cohomology, which tied into work developed by Grothendieck.
“Gerard was one of those who really embarked on the mammoth project in algebraic geometry led by Grothendieck, which was a quite revolutionary development that introduced an extensive generalization of the approach to several important questions in algebraic geometry,” Gunning said.
Bernard Noble, Washnitzer’s son, said that his father was a true academic and intellectual, complete with an office strewn with papers and books, who pushed himself and others to learn as much as possible. Storied among Washnitzer’s three sons are his math lessons, which would sprawl into areas, particularly real-world applications, that “had nothing to do with what was in the book,” Noble said.
Washnitzer was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 20, 1926. An athlete as a child, he was an avid jogger who was good at softball and biked to work from his Princeton home nearly every day for decades. He also loved classical music of all kinds, particularly Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner and Beethoven. When Washnitzer could not walk during the last 16 months of his life, an iPod Shuffle loaded with his favorite composers kept him in good spirits.
Washnitzer enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1944 during World War II, but never saw combat due to a surplus of pilots and a shortage of planes. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Brooklyn College in 1947 before coming to Princeton to study under Salomon Bochner. Washnitzer received his Ph.D. the same year as John Nash, and the two remained friends.
Washnitzer was married to Lillian Noble née Berg from 1953 until her death Jan. 23. He is survived by sons George Noble and Bernard Noble of New York City, and James Noble of Summit, New Jersey, and by seven grandchildren.
The Princeton Department of Mathematics will host a memorial service in honor of Washnitzer at 1 p.m. this Saturday, April 22, at Fine Hall, Taplin Auditorium.