Professor Luther Wade (1916-1996)

Remembering Luther I. Wade

(By Ron Retherford, Hubert Butts and James Keisler, 1997)

Luther Irwin Wade was born November 27, 1916 in Dallas, Texas. He received his mathematical training at Duke University, obtaining his Ph.D degree in 1941. His advisor was Leonard Carlitz, a famous number theorist and longtime editor of the prestigious Duke Mathematical Journal. Professor Wade was at John’s Hopkins University 1941 -1942 and was a National Research Council Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton 1942-1943. He returned to Duke in 1943. In 1945 he was made an associate editor of the Duke Mathematical Journal. 

He was hired by LSU in 1948 as head of the Mathematics Department, with the understanding that he was to build a Mathematics Department with a strong research component. He accepted a monumental task. At the time, there was only one faculty member in the Mathematics Department with a history of research, and he had stopped doing research some years before. Moreover, mathematicians from the Ivy League schools and other eminent universities were reluctant to move South.

Drawing on his experiences and acquaintances from Brown and the Institute for Advanced Study, Professor Wade was able to hire two PhDs from Princeton, one from Harvard, one from Yale, one from the California Institute of Technology, one from the University of Wisconsin and one from George Washington University in St. Louis, all with strong research credentials. Professor Wade accomplished this miraculous transformation in just five years!

In the years that followed, Dr. Wade continued to hire new faculty, adding one or two each year. His professional achievement in restructuring the LSU Department of Mathematics is impressive even by today's standards.

In the mid 1950’s at Professor Wade’s direction, the department started sending “recruiting teams“ to locate prospective graduate students from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The success of this recruiting program was remarkable. By 1960 the Mathematics Department was a very active research department with a core of excellent graduate students. Many of these students went on to active research careers in Mathematics and administrative careers in higher education. Several are still serving in these capacities. During the early 60's the Department produced two Sloan fellows and one Pierce fellow (Harvard). Almost all of the Ph.D students were hired by prestigious research universities throughout the United States. Professor Wade attended almost all dissertation defenses and insisted on the high standards which produced these results. During the decade of the 50's, Professor Wade hired Richard Anderson and Pasquale Porcelli. Both became Boyd Professors, LSU's highest professional rank. He also hired Hubert Butts, who became Alumni Professor, and many others who helped lead the department into the 60's and beyond.

In 1964-65, the National Science Foundation started a program to identify "centers off excellence" in Mathematics and Science and made large research grants to these selected universities. In 1965 LSU. received "centers of excellence' grants for Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Geology. In the short space of sixteen years Dr. Wade transformed a department with no research at all into a "center of excellence“ department - a truly remarkable achievement. The center of excellence grant provided funding for raises. additional hires and international conferences. One of these international conferences firmly established LSU as the world's leader in an area of Mathematics known as infinite dimensional topology. 

President John Hunter wrote to Dr. Wade concerning the Centers of Excellence grant (11/25/65) 

“The fact that Louisiana State University was awarded the 'centers of excellence' grant by the National Science Foundation may largely be attributed to the fine work which you and your colleagues did in the preparation of the proposal. This particular grant represents one of the most important developments in the long history of Louisiana State University. I wish to express to you my personal gratitude and that of the entire University family."

About the time of the center of excellence grant, Professor Wade established an “executive committee" consisting of him and seven senior research faculty members. The purpose of this committee was to help with hiring decisions and certain departmental policy matters. Although as head he did not have to delegate authority, Professor Wade sought input and guidance as the department grew. A version of this committee still exists within the Department.

Professor Wade decided that the Mathematics Department needed a special chair of Mathematics. Through his enormous efforts, and with the help and support of the executive committee, (indeed the entire Mathematics faculty) the LSU Board of Supervisors created the Nicholson Chair of Mathematics. In the statement concerning the creation of this chair, the Board of Supervisors made it clear that the Nicholson Chair was fully equivalent to the Boyd Professorships. Professor Wade had his mind set on one person: a young Louisiana native, Pierre Conner who was, at the time, the Commonwealth Professor of Mathematics at the University of Virginia. Professor Conner became the Nicholson Professor of Mathematics in 1965, and still holds that chair today.

In addition to developing the Department into a productive research department, Professor Wade tried to make sure that undergraduate teaching did not suffer and always stressed, especially to new faculty, the importance of teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The department experimented with large classes as a way to handle enrollment. Professor Wade and others within the department decided this was not pedagogically sound. He scaled classes back. To this day, the department is fighting to keep Mathematics classes a reasonable size.

Professor Wade’s office door was always open and every faculty member was free to come in and discuss problems with him. The research faculty in particular were welcomed in to discuss mathematics, especially their research work. Professor Wade's knowledge of mathematics was very broad and faculty in very different areas of mathematical research took full advantage of his "open door policy“, usually leaving his office with a better understanding of their research problem. In some cases, a joint paper with Dr. Wade resulted due to new insights he supplied. Dr. Wade did not ask to be a joint author. It was felt that his contributions warranted his co-authorship.

Dr. Wade remained Professor of Mathematics and Department Head until 1978. His thirty years as head of the department were truly remarkable. The most impressive thing during this entire period was Professor Wade’s integrity and consistency.

Dr. Wade retired as Professor Emeritus of Mathematics in 1980. After retirement. he divided his time between Louisiana and North Carolina.

Luther Wade died November 20, 1996 at the age of 79. His legacy lives on. Those of us who followed will always stand in his shadow.