May 09, 1996
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Symposium Will Celebrate Gleason and Society of Fellows

Symposium to Celebrate Gleason, Society of Fellows

By Debra Bradley Ruder

Gazette Staff

In 1946, a young Andrew Gleason joined the Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow, spending the next four years auditing lots of mathematics courses and focusing his attention on the famous mathematics problem, "Hilbert's Fifth."

After his tenure as a Junior Fellow, Gleason joined the Harvard faculty and was promoted to full professor in 1957. (He also served in the Navy for two years during the Korean War.) In 1969, he became the Hollis Professor of Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy, the nation's oldest endowed scientific professorship. He retired in 1992.

For the past 50 years, Gleason has maintained an association with the Society of Fellows, serving as a Senior Fellow for 19 years and as its chairman for the past 7.

Next month, he will retire from that leadership post and pass the baton to Walter Gilbert, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

On Monday, May 20, the Society will honor Gleason -- the Hollis Professor of Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy Emeritus -- with a symposium that will draw Junior Fellows from the 1930s to the 1990s to reflect on the Society through the decades.

The event will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, and it is open to members of the Harvard community.

Among the speakers will be Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1930s), McGeorge Bundy (1940s), Edward O. Wilson (1950s), John Harbison (1960s), Nancy Maizels (1970s), Joseph Koerner (1980s), and Leslie Dunton-Downer (1990s). In addition, former Fellow Henry Rosovsky will discuss the Society at Harvard, and mathematician David Mumford will talk about Gleason's distinguished career.

Gleason is perhaps best known for finding a solution to "Hilbert's Fifth Problem" in 1952, which ended a 50-year quest and won him the Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for an "outstanding contribution to science." The solution concerned abstract geometry, but it had possible importance for the theory of relativity and electron theory.

Gleason has made his mark as a careful and caring teacher and researcher who has contributed to fields ranging from quantum theory to mathematics education reform.

"In attending his last lecture," colleague Benedict Gross said in 1992, "I was struck by the care he took with the basic definitions, the simplicity of his presentation, and the time he had taken in preparing careful notes for the students. . . . Andy has always been a terrific inspiration to students."

In recent years, Gleason has been active in efforts to reform the mathematics programs of elementary and secondary schools, particularly in Massachusetts high schools. He has also been a principal investigator (along with Professor Deborah Hughes-Hallett) in a five-year, $2 million National Science Foundation project on the teaching of calculus. The project has produced a first-year calculus textbook and preliminary editions of a third-semester book and one on business calculus.

This year, Gleason won the Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics, the Mathematical Association of America's most prestigious award.

The Society of Fellows, based at 78 Mt. Auburn St., was founded in 1933 with a gift from A. Lawrence Lowell, who had just retired as President of the University. It enables scholars "of exceptional ability, originality, and resourcefulness" and at early stages of their academic careers to study in any Harvard department for three years, free of exams or teaching requirements. The Society is administered by 11 Senior Fellows.

Because Lowell believed in the value of informal discussion among scholars in different academic fields, the Senior and Junior Fellows meet for dinner every Monday night during the academic year, and Junior Fellows lunch together twice a week.

Junior Fellows have gone on to make major contributions in all fields and to serve as college presidents, advisers to U.S. presidents, and heads of major corporations and foundations. They have written hundreds of books and captured many Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Many -- like Gleason -- have remained at Harvard to teach.

Asked what the Society has meant to him, Gleason replied: "When I was a student, it was unquestionably the fact that I could study what I wanted. As a Senior Fellow, it has given me an opportunity to get acquainted with people in lots of different fields and to understand the problems faced by historians, sociologists, and other scholars."

For more information about the May 20 symposium, please contact the Society of Fellows at 495-2485.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College