Obituary: Albert Baernstein, professor emeritus of mathematics, 73


Albert Baernstein II, professor emeritus of mathematics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died at his home on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. He was 73.

He came to Washington University in 1972, earning the position of professor of mathematics in 1974. He taught at the university for 40 years, becoming professor emeritus in 2012.

For many years, he could be seen daily, in all weather, striding from his home in University Heights to his office in Cupples I Hall, at first accompanied by his beloved dog, Porterhouse, and later by another big mutt, Sadie.

Baernstein earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a master’s and PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught at Syracuse University briefly before moving to WUSTL.

“He was a highly respected mathematician, with an international reputation in the fields of complex analysis and potential theory,” said his colleague John McCarthy, the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences. “He had a special affinity for symmetrization problems – roughly speaking, showing that the most symmetric arrangement corresponds to the lowest energy. In 1972, he invented something now called the Baernstein Star Function and used this to solve several open problems in mathematics, including the difficult Edrei spread conjecture.

“Al and his wife, Judy, were very warm and generous people,” said McCarthy. “There was a constant stream of mathematical visitors to the university and Al and Judy would invite the entire department over to their house for a party; this set the tone that made the Wash. U. mathematics department one of the friendliest in the world.

“On one occasion, a Russian mathematician, who had come to visit the University of Missouri, was badly injured when the bus from the airport to Columbia crashed. Although the Baernsteins did not know the man, and he spoke almost no English, Al and Judy took him into their home for weeks while he convalesced to the point of being able to travel home again.”

In his family, he was notorious for his precision of memory and measurement. As a 5-year-old, he entertained his parents’ friends by calculating the day of the week for any given date in the century. As an adult, he entertained his children by recalling the details of any rest stop on any past family vacation, including the price of gas and whether the motel pool was open.

Manual labor proved more challenging: his lifelong inability to perform such mundane tasks as peeling an orange, inflating a bicycle tire or operating a pepper mill afforded endless amusement to his family.

He loved bad puns and limericks, and improvised them at every turn, as well as dark ale, hot curry and Wagner.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Judy (Haynes) Baernstein; two daughters, Prudence Renee (Wietse de Boer) of Oxford, Ohio, and Amy (Melanie Tratnik) of Seattle; four grandchildren: Sylvia and Arthur de Boer of Oxford, Ohio, and Cleo and Nora Baernstein of Seattle; and a sister, Alice Kirby, of Augusta, Ga.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the University City Public Library, where Al was a longtime patron, or to a library of your choice.

Diana Lutz
Senior News Director, Science
(314) 935-5272