Mathematician and activist Lee Lorch, 1915-2014

York University mathematician and civil rights activist Lee Lorch died February 28, 2014 at the age of 98.

A few years ago I posted on the 2007 Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans Lee Lorch where Lee was awarded the Yueh-Gin Gung and Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics.

The citation read:

Lee Lorch's mathematical research has been in the areas of analysis, differential equations, and special functions. His teaching positions have included the City College of New York, Pennsylvania State University, Fisk University, Philander Smith College, the University of Alberta, Howard University, Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm) and Aarhus University. He was at York from 1968 until retirement in 1985 and remains active in the mathematical community.

His scholarship has been recognized by election to Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada; appointment to committees of the Research Council of Canada; election to the Councils of the American Mathematical Society, the Canadian Mathematical Society, and the Royal Society of Canada; and by many invitations to lecture.

Lee Lorch is a remarkable teacher of mathematics and an inspiration to his students. Among those he guided were Etta Falconer, Gloria Hewitt, Vivienne Malone Mayes, and Charles Costley. He has recruited into graduate work and mathematical careers many students who would not have otherwise considered such a path. [See V. Mayes, American Mathematical Monthly, 1976, pp708-711; and P. Kenschaft, Change Is Possible, American Mathematical Society, 2005.]

During the early organization of the Association for Women in Mathematics, Lee gave sage advice about the value of inclusiveness in supporting effective advocacy. He is responsible for the appearance of the preposition "for" in place of the initially proposed "of" in the name of the AWM.

Throughout his career he has been a vocal advocate and energetic worker for human rights and educational opportunities. His interventions, especially in the 1950's, led to changes in the policies and practices of the AMS and the MAA that ensured that all mathematicians could participate in the official events of these organizations. While his actions have not solved all the problems he addressed, surely his energy has contributed to much progress.

As an example, we cite events surrounding a meeting in 1951 held in Nashville. Lee Lorch, the chair of the mathematics department at Fisk University, and three Black colleagues, Evelyn Boyd (now Granville), Walter Brown, and H. M. Holloway came to the meeting and were able to attend the scientific sessions. However, the organizer for the closing banquet refused to honor the reservations of these four mathematicians. (Letters in Science, August 10, 1951, pp. 161-162 spell out the details). Lorch and his colleagues wrote to the governing bodies of the AMS and MAA seeking bylaws against discrimination. Bylaws were not changed, but non-discriminatory policies were established and have been strictly observed since then.

For his life-long contributions to mathematics, his continued dedication to inclusiveness, equity, and human rights for mathematicians, and especially his profound influence on the lives of minority and women mathematicians who have benefited from his efforts, the MAA presents this Yueh-Gin Gung and Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics to Lee Lorch.

A picture of a beaming Lee Lorch is here. There's also a nice article in the daily YorkU email newsletter about the award.

On paper, Lorch retired in 1985. But, as he likes to say, "I’m not retired. Unfortunately my salary is." At 91, he still uses an office at York and is collaborating on a research paper about Bessel functions with Prof. Martin Muldoon, a former grad student under Lorch in Edmonton and himself recently retired from York’s Mathematics Department. He’s given up teaching but travels to campus regularly and participates in meetings and other activities. Not as mobile as he once was, he uses a walker and relies on Wheel-Trans to get around. However, e-mail and the Internet have only fuelled his activism.

What’s remarkable, says Muldoon, is that Lorch still takes great interest in the mathematical community, especially its treatment of women and minorities. From his tiny home office, he reads five newspapers a day, including the New York Times. He sends flurries of e-mails daily about peace and justice issues – these days he focuses on Cuban-Canadian friendship – to friends and acquaintances in and out of the mathematical community. Only five years ago, he raised a fuss with the newly formed Fields Institute, a math organization in Toronto, over its first list of 33 fellows, all of whom were white men. Within two years, several women became fellows and the institute appointed a woman director.

It’s impossible not to admire Lorch’s persistence and courage. Does he feel he’s made headway in his struggles against racism, inequality and injustice? "Yes," he says, "but there’s a long way to go. These issues are still very much with us."

At the time, it was a great pleasure to note the award. Lee was an ardent library supporter and a very welcome visitor to my library, always willing to stop & chat, to share a story or two from his vast experience. I already miss seeing him around campus, usually with his friend Martin Muldoon.

He also donated many rare and unique books from his collection to the library, many of which I've had the pleasure of processing, making our collection a much better research-level collection. When Lee gave up his office a while back I went through many of the books in his office and added a bunch to the collection here at Steacie. In particular he had a lot of Russian books, both mathematical and of interest for the history of math in Russia and the Soviet Union. He even had a some communist children's books, as I recall. I remember fondly as we were going through the math books he'd often point to the Russian one we were looking at and remark on how rare it was outside Russia and thus important to have in a research collection. I think he got a lot of them via personal relationships with Russian mathematicians, especially while visiting them.

Lee was an active researcher up into his 80s and 90s. His most recent publication was from 2008, with his friend and former student Martin Muldoon: Monotonic sequences related to zeros of Bessel functions (OA version). His most recent sole author paper was from 2005: The First Positive Zeros of Cylinder Functions and of Their Derivatives. His earliest is from 1944: The Lebesgue constants for Borel summability.

Lee Lorch will be missed.

As is my habit, I'm listing some other items about Lee's life and work both in mathematics and advocacy.

Obituaries & Remembrances


General & Biographical


Other Material

If you knew Lee, please feel free to share a story or remembrance in the comments. As usual, If I've missed anything, add a link in the comments.


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I was lucky enough to have Prof. Lorch for Calculus 1 back in 1978-79. I still remember his short speech about Stephen Biko during our last class that year. In retrospect, he made more of an impression on me by the way he lived his life rather than merely what he advocated.

By Steven Haddock (not verified) on 17 Mar 2014 #permalink