Professor Emeritus Dirk J. Struik died on October 21 at the age of 106.
Struik was an acclaimed mathematician and part of the mathematics faculty at MIT from 1926 until 1960. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Struik obtained his doctorate in 1922 from the University of Leiden. He continued his research at the Technical University in Delft, and later in Rome and Gottingen with a Rockefeller Fellowship. He worked with many prominent mathematicians of the time, including MIT professor Norbert Weiner.
Weiner offered Struik an opportunity to lecture in mathematics at MIT in the fall of 1926. Struik accepted, and became an assistant professor by 1928. He was made an associate professor in 1931, and was promoted to professor in 1940.
Professor Helen Beard remembers Struik as a great teacher who was “overly considerate of his students.” She said that “he was very popular. Students were all very fond of him and would try to get into his classes.”
Domina E. Spencer of the University of Connecticut, also a former student of Struik, hails Struik as “a great man in every sense and certainly one of the best mathematicians I have ever known.” Spencer said that she had wanted to be a physics major, but became a math professor because of him. “Most professors at MIT didn’t give you the feeling that you could do something. There was a sense that everything about math was known. He instead suggested that there was a problem on the mathematical representation of rigid body motion and said how he wished some students would research the issue,” she said. Spencer reportedly took “every class he taught except for probability,” and even took one class three times because he gave the “most beautiful lectures.”
Struik was suspended from MIT for four years in the 1950s because he refused to cooperate with the House Unamerican Committee in its investigations. He was later allowed back, with an MIT committee condemning his behavior as “conduct unbecoming of an MIT professor.”
Spencer praises Struik as a great human being who refused to destroy the careers of his colleagues, even at the risk of being jailed. “He was active in housing refugees in the 1940s and getting mathematicians and musicians out of Hitler’s Europe. He urged people to understand the Russians’ math and culture instead of being intent on killing them,” she said.
Struik retired as Professor Emeritus of Mathematics in 1960, but remained intellectually active, continuing to lecture at MIT forums, among other activities. In 1972, Harvard University made him an honorary research associate in the History of Science Department.
Since then, Struik went on to earn a Gold Medal of Achievement and the first Kenneth Ownsworth May Prize for his work in the history and development of mathematics. Struik is also honored on an aluminum History of Math ceiling at the University of Connecticut, along with his own professor from Holland.
Dirk J. Struik is survived by three daughters, ten grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Details of an MIT memorial service have yet to be determined. However, the University of Connecticut is holding a commemoration for Struik on November 14th. Spencer plans to show a video of one of Struik’s lectures and have pizza for the students. One of Struik’s daughters is expected to give a speech at the commemoration.