James B. Serrin

University of Minnesota

November 1, 1926 - August 23, 2012

Election Year: 1980
Scientific Discipline: Mathematics
Membership Type: Member

James Burton Serrin was a leading American mathematician who profoundly influenced fluid dynamics, minimal surface theory, continuum mechanics, thermodynamics, partial differential equations, nonlinear analysis, and abstract evolution equations. In receiving a 1973 award from the American Mathematical Society (AMS), he was cited in particular “for his fundamental contributions to the theory of nonlinear partial differential equations, especially his work on existence and regularity theory for nonlinear elliptic equations, and [for] applications of his work to the theory of minimal surfaces in higher dimensions.”

Born in Chicago, IL, and brought up in nearby Evanston, Serrin earned a B.A. in 1947 from Western Michigan College (now Western Michigan University). He did his graduate work at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he studied fluid dynamics and partial differential equations. Serrin’s thesis addressed The Existence of Flows Solving Four Free-Boundary Problems, and he received his Ph.D. in 1951.

After graduation, Serrin left IU to take up an appointment as a Fine Instructor of Mathematics at Princeton University. In 1952 he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a C. L. E. Moore Instructor, and while at MIT he began his seminal work on elliptic partial differential equations. In 1954 Serrin was appointed assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota, where he remained for the rest of his career. He became an associate professor in 1956, a full professor in 1959, and Regents’ Professor of Mathematics in 1969. 

In his work, Serrin often partnered with colleagues, and he displayed a particular knack for collaborating with talented younger mathematicians and for bringing out the best in them. Some of these partnerships endured for many years. As long-time collaborator Patrizia Pucci wrote in Notices of the AMS (June/July) 2013, “James was a great mathematician and an exceptional man. His work has inspired generations of mathematicians and will continue to influence the future of mathematics. His loss is inconsolable for anyone who had the good fortune to meet him.”

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