Obituary: Donald J. Lewis, professor emeritus of mathematics


Donald J. Lewis, professor emeritus of mathematics, died Feb. 25 at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.

Born Jan. 25, 1926, in Minnesota, to William and Eleanor Lewis, he was the oldest of eight children. He married Carolyn Dana Hauf in 1953 in Ann Arbor.

Donald J. Lewis

Lewis received his Bachelor of Science degree from the College of St. Thomas in 1946, and his Master of Science and Ph.D. from U-M in 1949 and 1950, respectively.

After receiving his doctorate, he was an instructor at Ohio State University for two years, and spent the following year as a National Science Foundation Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He was an assistant professor then associate professor at Notre Dame University from 1953-61.

Lewis joined the U-M faculty as an associate professor in 1961, and was promoted to professor in 1963.

 He was a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and held visiting positions at various overseas institutions throughout his career, including the universities at Manchester, Cambridge and Oxford in England, Heidelberg and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and held a visiting professorship sponsored by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.

Lewis chaired the Department of Mathematics at U-M from 1984-94, with a break for one year to visit the Institute for Advanced Study.

 He served on the Executive Committee of LSA, the University Budget Priority Committee and on search committees for the deans of LSA, the College of Engineering, and the vice president for research.

Lewis received numerous awards for his research and service, including a Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award from U-M and an Alexander Von Humboldt Prize. He retired from active faculty status in 2000, but remained active in research and continued to work in the math department on alumni relations and fundraising.

Between 1995-99, Lewis was based in Washington, D.C., as the director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences of the NSF, where he championed multidisciplinary initiatives that paved the way for the applied and interdisciplinary mathematics programs at universities around the country.

He was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award of the American Mathematical Society in 1995 in recognition his many contributions to mathematics research and education.

Lewis’ research lies in an area of number theory concerned primarily with Diophantine problems, and encompasses the theory of algebraic number fields and function fields, and arithmetic geometry.

The work in his thesis concerning the local solubility of cubic forms remains definitive. Also noteworthy is a series of papers produced in a longstanding collaboration with Harold Davenport, which laid the foundations for the investigation of a number of Diophantine problems, especially diagonal variants.

In 1966, Lewis authored the book “Introduction to Algebra” that utilized the art of M.C. Escher to help display mathematical concepts and illustrate the interplay between the two disciplines.  He published two volumes of the book “Calculus and Linear Algebra” with U-M colleague Wilfred Kaplan.

He is the author of 58 research papers and a number of survey papers. One of Lewis’ main interests was the development of young mathematicians and he directed 24 doctoral theses. He was an associate editor of several scholarly mathematics journals.

Lewis also was a noted cultivator of rhododendrons. At one time he had 900 rhododendrons on three-quarters of an acre, ranging from a few inches to 12 feet high. The Lewis garden was regularly used as a test site for new plant varieties to see if they were suitable for this climate. 

He was an advocate of U-M sports teams, particularly women’s basketball, and he enjoyed University Musical Society events with his wife and friends.

Besides his wife of 61 years, Carolyn Dana Lewis, he is survived by sister Pat Henning (Sonny) of Adrian, Minnesota; sister-in-law Arlene Lewis of DeLand, Florida; brothers Paul (Mimi) of Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Joe of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Naples, Florida; Bill (Judy) of Faribault, Minnesota; and Ed of El Segundo, California; many nieces and nephews; and his beloved cat, Victoria. Brothers Ray and Carl preceded him in death. 

Visitation will be March 9 from 4-7 p.m., with a sharing of remembrances immediately following, at Muehlig Funeral Home, 403 S. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor. A funeral mass will be at 10:30 a.m. March 10 at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 2250 E. Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor. The Mathematics Department will host a memorial at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Donald J. Lewis Professorship in Mathematics (571193), Department of Mathematics, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI  48109-1043.  Online giving is available on the U-M Leaders and Best giving site.

— Submitted by the Department of Mathematics

Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.