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Obituary
Murray Protter

04 June 2008

Murray H. Protter, a former chair of the mathematics department whose calculus textbook sold more than a million copies in the 1960s and ’70s, died of congestive heart failure May 1 at his home in Berkeley. He was 90.


Protter, a professor emeritus of mathematics, specialized in an area of calculus called partial differential equations, which deals with the solutions of complex equations involving several variables. Such equations describe key physical processes, such as heat and fluid flow.

In 1964, Protter co-authored (with fellow Berkeley mathematician Charles Morrey Jr.) the book Calculus With Analytic Geometry: A First Course. It became the second- best-selling calculus text at the time in the United States, according to his son, Philip Protter, now a professor of operations research at Cornell University. The textbook, last published in 1988, helped train a generation of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.

Protter had perhaps his greatest impact on mathematics education and on the reputation of Berkeley’s Department of Mathematics. He was chair of the department between 1962 and 1965, not long after the 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union. Improved science and mathematics education immediately became a national priority in the U.S., and Protter helped hire many of the great mathematicians of the day, turning Berkeley into one of the best mathematics departments in the country and the world.

One of Protter’s innovations was self-paced learning, which he started in the math department in 1972 to allow students to advance in calculus at their own pace through self-study, said current mathematics chair Alan Weinstein. Self-paced enrollment jumped from an initial 85 students in 1972 to 500 students two years later; it lasted some 20 years before it was phased out within the math department.

Protter was born Feb. 13, 1918, and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1937 and earned his Ph.D. at Brown University in 1946. After working on behalf of the war effort he was an assistant professor at Syracuse University from 1947-51, then moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., until 1953, when he joined the Berkeley faculty. He retired in 1988, receiving the campus’s highest honor, the Berkeley Citation.

Protter was recalled from retirement between 1990 and 1992 when F. Alberto Grunbaum agreed to take over as chair of the Department of Mathematics, but only if Protter agreed to serve as deputy chairman.

Protter was active in the American Mathematical Society, serving for many years as its treasurer, and was a longtime editor of the book reviews of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. Though he authored many books, the research book of which Protter was most proud was Maximum Principles in Differential Equations, written jointly with Hans Weinberger and first published in 1967. It was reissued by Springer-Verlag in 1999.

Protter was a Miller Research Professor in 1959 and again in 1967, and served as executive director of the Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science from 1981 to 1983.

Protter is survived by his wife, Ruth Rotman Protter, of Berkeley; daughter Barbara Robison, of Overland Park, Kan.; and son, Philip, of Ithaca, N.Y. He also leaves four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A campus memorial will be held Sunday, Sept. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Faculty Club.

— Robert Sanders