Mathematician wins American award for his distinguished service

Saturday, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) presented its highest award for distinguished service to York Professor Emeritus Lee Lorch.

The 91-year-old American-born mathematician, who still uses an office at York, received the 2007 Yueh-Gin Gung and Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans this past weekend. Lorch is only the second Canadian recipient of this prestigious award from one of the largest and oldest professional associations of mathematicians in the United States.

Left: Lee Lorch

Lorch is known as much for championing civil rights as he is for classical analysis and summability theory. While he has distinguished himself as a scholar, he has spent his entire adult life fighting tirelessly for civil rights and equal educational opportunities for women and minority groups.

This is not the first time Lorch has been recognized for his civil rights activism. Over the past couple of decades, he has accepted one honorary degree after another, ironically from US colleges who fired him in the 1950s, along with other honours. "Each award bears its own flavour," he says. "What I like about this award is not that it recognizes me, but that it recognizes the importance of the issues in which I’ve been involved. That is to make the scientific community, the mathematics community in particular, hospitable to minorities and to women."

"The award is all about service," says Man Wah Wong, Chair of York’s Mathematics Department. "It’s about his lifetime devotion to fighting for human rights."

Had it not been for Lorch’s civil rights activism, he may never have ended up in Canada.

Born in New York City in 1915, Lorch came of age during the 1930s and 1940s, when it was impossible to ignore the hatred brewing in Europe. He earned degrees from Cornell University and the University of Cincinnati then quit a draft-exempt job as a mathematician with an agency that was the precursor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to serve in the US Army during the Second World War. He didn’t want to have "a safe berth" while his contemporaries were risking their lives fighting the Nazis. From then on, he faced injustice wherever he encountered it – and risked the consequences.

After the war, he held, then lost, faculty positions at a string of different American universities over his often very public stands on civil rights.

He was fired from City College of New York for his attempts to end racial segregation in the housing development where he lived. The development had been built in Stuyvesant, a slum neighbourhood cleared to make way for the new housing for war vets, and didn’t admit non-whites. "This became a big issue in the city," remembers Lorch. "The world had just witnessed racism that sent millions into gas chambers. There was a lot of popular support to end racist practices, but there was no support in the courts. That was before there was any civil rights legislation." Then Pennsylvania State University, pressed by influential business interests, fired Lorch for allowing a black family to live in his Stuyvesant apartment.

The attempts to discredit him continued as Lorch tried to persuade the Mathematical Association of America to admit his black colleagues in the mathematics department to a banquet at the regional meeting in Nashville, and after attempts to enroll his daughter in a black neighbourhood school bordering Fisk University, where he had found his next job. Although the US Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation on May 17, 1954, Lorch was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to testify on his political affiliations, was indicted, tried and acquitted for contempt of Congress. Fisk’s predominantly white board of trustees dismissed him, over the objections of his mathematics colleagues and the leading black trustees. But – small victory – two years later, the MAA made it policy never to hold banquets in establishments that discriminated against blacks.

"If you stand aside and benefit from something while other people suffer, it is difficult to look yourself in the face," says Lorch. "Sometimes you have to do what is right otherwise you consent to doing what’s wrong. If you accept something because you’re white knowing somebody black will be denied the same thing, what’s your moral position?"  

In 1955, Lorch moved on to Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Chair of its mathematics department. Two years later, the Arkansas National Guard, acting on direct orders from the governor, surrounded Little Rock High School in an attempt to keep the nine enrolled black students off the premises; this, in the face of the US Supreme Court ruling for school desegregation. One of the black students, a 15 year-old girl, was menaced by a mob during the standoff. Lorch’s wife Grace saved her from the mob, and subsequently took her home. Threats against the school and against Lorch’s family became so intolerable, he resigned.

By 1959, Lorch was blacklisted at US schools. He accepted an offer from the University of Alberta in Edmonton and moved his family to Canada. He stayed in Edmonton for nine years until York lured him to Toronto in 1968.

Right: Lee Lorch in his York office

Since then, history has reversed its verdict. Two of the colleges that fired him – City University of New York and Fisk University – have given him honorary degrees. In 1976, he received a special award from Howard University for his contributions to civil rights and the education of black mathematicians. He accepted a similar award from the US National Academy of Sciences in 1990. Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, the leading college in the US for black women, gave him an honorary doctorate for his lifelong struggle to obtain equal opportunities for black Americans. In 1993, York also gave him an honorary degree for both mathematics and civil rights activism. And in 2003, the International Society for Analysis, Applications and Computation presented him with an honorary life membership for distinguished mathematical contributions and for his struggles for the disadvantaged and world peace.

He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Science (1968) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has served on grant selection committees for the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, been elected to the councils of Canadian and American mathematical societies and invited to lecture all over the world.

Lorch joins a list of distinguished mathematicians from Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, Stanford and other American universities to receive the Gung and Hu Award, endowed in 1990 and the successor of the MAA’s Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics, which made its first appearance in 1962. The very best mathematicians in their fields have won this award, says Wong. They include Hyman Bass (Michigan, 2006), Paul R. Halmos (Santa Clara, 2000), Andrew Gleason (Harvard, 1996), Annali Lax (NYU, 1995), Leon Henkin (Berkeley, 1990), Saunders MacLane (Chicago, 1975), R.H. Bing (Texas at Austin, 1974), A.W. Tucker (Princeton, 1968) and George Polya (Stanford, 1963).

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."

This article was written by Martha Tancock, York communications officer, with files from

York University Gazette archives