Morris Marden’s Biography

Morris Marden (1905-1991) is generally considered to have been the founder of the Mathematics Department at UWM as a research department, and he is the person most responsible for the beginning of graduate programs at UWM. See our page on the history of the department for more on this; you can also view a document about the graduate program at UWM written by Professor Marden.

The Mathematical Sciences Department sponsors a lecture every year named in honor of Professor Marden (and funded by a bequest from him and his wife Miriam). The department also has several prizes named after Professor Marden.

We have posted an article of mathematical reminiscences by Morris Marden: this article originally appeared in Mathematics Magazine in October, 1990.

Biography of Morris Marden

The article below originally appeared in 1994 on pages 183-186 of volume 26 of the journalComplex Variables, published by Gordon and Breach Publishers. It is posted here through generous permission of the publisher.

Albert and Philip Marden are Morris and Miriam Marden’s sons. Albert is professor of mathematics and director of the Geometry Center at the University of Minnesota; Philip practices pediatrics in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

Morris Marden (1905-1991)

by Albert Marden and Philip Marden

There are many for whom the job or profession is actually a way of life, something that colors all aspects of existence. Mathematicians are often in that category, and Morris was one of them. The history as related here is as found in various papers and manuscripts that he left, and personal memory.

We feel sure the first thing he would want us to say is that he saw himself as the founder of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee mathematics department as a research department.

Morris Marden was born on February 12, 1905 in East Boston, the fifth son and seventh child of Abram and Fannie B. Marden. In 1882, his father had arrived in Boston from Russia and his mother had followed in 1885.

When Morris was fifteen, he visited William Osgood at Harvard to inquire about the texts used in the freshman course in analytic geometry and calculus. He had learned about the possibility of getting college credits for independent study. With Osgood’s support, he matriculated into Harvard in the Fall of 1921, at the age of sixteen, with credit for taking 3.5 courses, almost a full year. By necessity, Morris financed his education entirely by scholarships, summer jobs, and very frugal living. At the end of his junior year, he received the Wister prize for the highest combined average in mathematics and music and the first Rogers Prize for the best paper presented to the Harvard Mathematics Club. He graduated in 1925 with a magna with highest honors in mathematics. He was most pleased however by an appointment as half-time instructor which he held for the next two years as a graduate student because it meant financial security. Osgood thought age 60 too old to supervise Ph.D. students, and so Morris started working on differential equations with Birkhoff. However, in his second year, Birkhoff went on leave, and Morris started working instead with Joe Walsh, who was then a young assistant professor. His thesis was completed during 1927-1928, a year he could devote full time to his work because of a special scholarship.

The two years he spent (full time equivalent) as a graduate student was the minimal time permitted for a Ph.D. Morris was in his 23rd year. Upon graduation, Morris was awarded a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship which he then resigned when he received a more advantageous National Research Fellowship.

During the next two years he worked under E. B. Van Vleck in Madison, Einar Hille at Princeton, Polya in Zurich and Montel in Paris. The second of these years, spent in Europe, was the year 1929-1930, the beginning of the depression. Osgood had assured him, “Harvard has never had any difficulty in placing its Ph.D. graduates.” Nevertheless Morris returned from Zurich to Boston in July, 1930 without any offer at all. It didn’t help that he was Jewish. At the very last minute he had an offer from Milwaukee which he accepted immediately.

So in the Fall of 1930, only 25 years old with the economy collapsing around him, he arrived in Milwaukee a short time after classes started. Morris had accepted an assistant professorship at a two-year branch of the University of Wisconsin at the salary of $2700 per academic year. His teaching load was set at 13 hours in consideration of his research activities. In his words, “[The position] was not all bad …. The students were on the whole a hard-working serious lot. Some had been attending more prestigious colleges, but the depression had depleted family funds and they had to return home. One felt a greater than usual social responsibility to give these young people as high as possible a quality of education.”

During the 30s, Morris helped form the Wisconsin chapter of the MAA and organized some local seminars. “We also asked some high school teachers to join us in the study of Klein’s `Elementary Mathematics’.” He also was busy enlarging the library facilities and supervising some WPA projects. He of course carried a heavy load of teaching and grading yet still was able to carry forth a research program.

Sparked by the necessities of the War, the 1940s were the beginning of what would be a revolution in academic life as universities became increasingly research oriented. Morris was certainly on the cutting edge of that movement and was to grab every opportunity he could. There were endless remarks in our household into the 1950s about how scornful some colleagues were about the importance of doing research. For him, research was the driving, vital force of academic life which sustained and enriched the teaching and administrative values.

In answer to a call form engineers for more training about 1940, Morris was authorized to begin teaching graduate courses at the Milwaukee Extension Center, as the school was called. Courses were given in other subjects too but he was the only Milwaukee faculty member authorized to teach graduate level courses and he took full advantage of this. Morris became interested in applied mathematics. From April, 1945 to the War’s end he headed a small Navy project in Brooklyn. From 1948 to 1960, he was a consultant on compressor and turbine designs at Allis Chalmers Co.

The number of graduate courses increased especially after the war. In the early fifties he supervised two Ph.D. these via Madison. In 1955 the Extension Center merged with Wisconsin State College (formerly Milwaukee State Teachers College) to become a four year school, University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee (UWM). He had been involved in every possible aspect to which he could contribute to bring this about. In 1957 he became chairman, and he recruited a fine department, focusing especially in applied mathematics and complex analysis. An early initiative was his establishment of a new four year degree program in Applied Mathematics and Engineering Physics.

In 1961, after he received an NSF grant, Morris stepped down as department chair. His research continued to be productive, and his grant continued for many years through periodic renewals. Having such a grant had a large impact on his professional life, as it represented national recognition for the fact that for the previous 30 years he had been the most active researcher on the faculty in Milwaukee.

Looking through his notes one reads about what can only be interpreted as a convoluted political period at the University. We gather he suffered administrators poorly, except for the few he came to respect. Fortunately, Morris from the time he arrived had always been very well received in Madison. Through these contacts over the years, which included Bing, Ingraham, Kleene, and L. C. Young, he convinced the powers that be, that a graduate program in Milwaukee would be of an intellectual quality comparable to that of Madison. First a masters degree program was approved in 1959 and then, a Ph.D. program in 1964. This was made possible by a vote in 1963 by the Graduate Faculty in Madison, and confirmed by the Board of Regents, that did four things: (1) established the Ph.D. program in mathematics as the first and at the time only such program at UWM, (2) declared an intention to develop UWM into a major university, (3) established a graduate school in Milwaukee separate from that in Madison, and (4) established a chair called “UWM Distinguished Professor” to which Morris was appointed. In Morris’ words, “Thus our Ph.D. initiative helped to open a new era for the UWM.” It was thus fitting that one of his graduate students, G. M. Shah, now chair at UW-Waukesha, was one of the first two to receive a Ph.D. at UWM.

He had six Ph.D. students in all; the others were Augusta Schurrer (1952), Robert Vermes (1963), Peter McCoy (1971), N. Zaheer (1971), Allan Fryant (1975).

The notion of a professor having obligations to bring his expertise to the community beyond the pursuit of a personal research program always guided his professional life. One can see that initiatives he took over the years have now become more or less conventional activities for math departments: working relationships with local high schools, local industry and a student oriented graduate program. We have been told that he was a superb teacher. We found documentation for this in the two years he was Visiting Distinguished Professor at California State University at San Luis Obispo: the obligatory student evaluations overwhelmingly rated him `excellent.’

Much to his distress, by the rules he had to retire in 1975 at the age of 70 after 45 years teaching in Milwaukee. He taught at San Luis Obispo for the next two years, and then returning to Milwaukee teaching part time 1979 to 1982, when his heretofore excellent health started to give out. He and our mother established a small endowment, the Miriam and Morris Marden Fund to sponsor a “Marden Lecture” and “Marden Prize” for the best undergraduate paper at UWM. In his final years, he took much pride in these programs as did our mother Miriam. She also should be given credit for the fundamental role she played in his career. Together with Morrie a product of the “old school,” she ran the household for 60 years leaving him free for his mathematics. Beyond this, it is hard to believe he would have been so successful without her good sense, judgment, strong will, and complementary activities elsewhere in the community.

Morrie’s research career never varied much from the study of the location of the zeros of complex polynomials and certain related rational and entire functions. Perhaps the culmination of his research career was in his monograph, “The Geometry of the Zeros,” (or, Much Ado about Nothing, as he would sometimes say) which appeared in 1949 as Volume III of the Mathematical Surveys series of the American Math Society. It was replaced in 1966 by the considerably enlarged and rewritten edition which he called, “The Geometry of Polynomials.” One sees dog-eared copies of them in libraries all over the world, so we know they are heavily used, perhaps more so by engineers than mathematicians. To give the flavor of his interests, we will end by stating a conjecture he was obsessed with for over 25 years; it was repeated in most of his NSF grants, and most of his Monthly article of 1983 was devoted to it. This is the Ilyeff Conjecture which Morrie asserts is due to Sendov who told Morrie about it in 1962): if p(z) is a polynomial having all its zeros in the unit disk |z|<1, and if w is any one such zero, then at least one critical point of p(z) lies in the disk |z-w|<1.

We found in his bedside table a small, old book of Hasidic aphorisms compiled by Martin Buber. One of them is called the Solitary Tree:

When I look at the world, it sometimes seems to me as if every man were a tree in the wilderness, and God had no one in the world save him alone, and he had none he could turn to, save God alone.