McCarthy installed as new Spencer T. Olin professor

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton presents mathematician John E. McCarthy with the medallion that symbolizes his installation as the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences. (Credit: Mary Butkus/WUSTL)

Mathematician John E. McCarthy, PhD, was installed March 2 as the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences in a ceremony in Holmes Lounge.

“An endowed professorship at Washington University is the highest level appointment that we can make, and Professor McCarthy joins a very distinguished group of fellow chair holders who have made a big difference in the life of this community,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said.

The professorship was established in 1996 with a bequest from Spencer T. Olin, a longtime member of the WUSTL Board of Trustees. The first holder of the professorship was Douglass C. North, PhD, a 1993 Nobel Laureate in economics.

The installation was attended by Mary Dell Pritzlaff, daughter of Spencer T. Olin and Ann W. Olin and university trustee emerita, who has, Wrighton said, “continued the great legacy of this family as a wise counselor and generous contributor to our success.”

Wrighton presented Prizlaff as well as McCarthy with a university medallion to celebrate the occasion of McCarthy’s installation to the Olin professorship.

Gary S. Wihl, PhD, the Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, introduced McCarthy and spoke about his scholarly contributions.

“John is the son of two Limerick physicians, and perhaps a career in medicine seemed the most likely prospect,” Wihl said, “but in his freshman year at Dublin University he discovered a love of pure mathematics and never looked back.”

McCarthy went on to earn a PhD in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wihl highlighted McCarthy’s work with Jim Agler, PhD, on an the extension of a famous theorem in mathematics, called the Pick interpolation theorem, that concerns the minimum energy curve that fits a set of data points.

“Their work is a multi-dimensional generalization of this classical one-dimensional result formulated by Georg Pick, PhD, in 1916, and their book on the subject has become an indispensible reference work in the field of mathematics,” Wihl said.

McCarthy receives congratulations from his daughter, Fiona, after the ceremony. (Credit: Mary Butkus/WUSTL)

Wihl also noted that 15 of 60 papers McCarthy has published concern applied rather than theoretical topics, addressing problems in ultrasonic imaging, control theory, cancer therapy and plasma physics, among other topics.

McCarthy has received more than $3 million in funding, an unusually high level of support for a pure mathematician, and has been continuously supported by the National Science Foundation since he received his PhD in 1989.

Wihl said McCarthy is also one of the department’s most popular teachers, and mentioned that he has published a book, Transitions to Higher Mathematics, addressed to prospective math majors.

Following the formal installation and the presentation of the professorship medallion, McCarthy spoke on “Why Pure Mathematics Matters.”

“One of the very strange thing about mathematics,” McCarthy said, “is that pure mathematics that is pursued purely for aesthetic reasons, to explore the beauty of the ideas, is unreasonably effective. Ideas that crop up in pure mathematics turn out decades, sometimes even centuries, later to be just the right tool to solve a problem in applied science.”

Among the examples he gave were the investigations of non-Euclidean geometry in the 19th century, without which the theory of relativity couldn’t have been formulated; and the study of infinite dimensional systems, which was necessary for formulating quantum mechanics.

Work he himself had done on quadrature domains, two-dimensional shapes that have a very smooth boundary and are not allowed to have any corners, turned out to predict the equilibrium shapes of charged plasmas within the “traps” that contain them.

“Once you make this connection,” he said, “it tells you what charge to put on the wall to keep the plasma in equilibrium and how to get any shape you want — except ones with corners.”

About Ann W. and Spencer T. Olin

Spencer Olin graduated in 1921 from Cornell University and began his career working in the family business, Western Cartridge Company in East Alton, Ill. He was vice president of Olin Corp., when its Winchester Repeating Arms subsidiary turned out 15 billion rounds of ammunition for the Allies during World War II.

He raised millions of dollars for the 1952 presidential campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower and was the national finance chairman for the Republican party from 1950-1960 and treasurer of the Republican National Committee from 1960-62.

Olin was granted an honorary doctorate from WUSTL in 1969. His wife, Ann Whitney Olin, was heavily involved in educational philanthropy, and the Ann Whitney Olin Women’s Building is named for her.

Also named for the Olins are endowed professorships in biology, engineering and medicine.

Spencer and Ann Olin also directed their generosity toward the Mr. and Mrs. Spencer T. Olin Fellowship program for Women in Graduate Study, the Olin conference in women in higher education and the professions, and the Olin residence hall at the School of Medicine.

Ann Olin died in 1976; Spencer Olin in 1995.