Pfeiffer’s longtime career at Rice to be celebrated April 30

Special to Rice News

Paul Pfeiffer has been at Rice under each of the university’s presidents in its 100-year history. The George R. Brown School of Engineering will celebrate the end of Pfeiffer’s career at Rice with a farewell party April 30 from 3 to 5 p.m. in Duncan Hall, Room 3092.

Paul Pfeiffer


Pfeiffer’s long and intimate relationship with Rice began 78 years ago when he arrived here as a freshman in 1934. Back then, there were no graduate programs in engineering. There was no computational and applied mathematics, no computer science, and electrical and computer engineering stopped at the electrical part.

Pfeiffer earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1938 and remained for another two years to start graduate study and teach part time. Pfeiffer taught full time at Rice for more than 50 years, from 1947 to 1998, and served as dean of students for four years.

“I formally retired in 1988, when I turned 71, but continued teaching full time for another 10 years,” Pfeiffer said. “That’s when I became an emeritus professor. No longer active in teaching or research, I just try to stay aware of things,”.

In May 1943, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

He preached for several years in Dallas and also served a circuit of three small country churches a year while teaching and studying at Rice. In 1948, he earned his master’s in electrical engineering, and four years later his Ph.D. in mathematics.

One of his former students, Sid Burrus, the Maxfield Oshman Professor Emeritus and research professor in electrical and computer engineering, said, “When I looked at Paul Pfeiffer from the perspective of a rather naïve undergraduate, he seemed to have it all. I wanted to study engineering but not to be an engineer. I enjoyed working with people and ideas, and I loved mathematics. Becoming an electrical engineering professor in a good university seemed the way to have my cake and eat it too. Paul was an ideal role model for me.”

Pfeiffer chaired the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1960 to 1963. During that era, he said, “We revised the curriculum, starting with a list of everything that we thought should be taught to electrical engineering students. Electronics was basically the vacuum tube then.”

From 1965 to 1969, he chaired the Committee on Applied Mathematics and Systems Research, which resulted in the creation of the Department of Mathematical Sciences in 1968. He served as its chair in 1974-75. It was renamed the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics in 1992.

“What I learned from Professor Pfeiffer, and it was good training for the field I entered, was the reliability of systems,” said Rice trustee Lynn Laverty Elsenhans ’78, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences and until recently was president and CEO of Sunoco. “It’s amazing to me how many chemical engineers will reach a computational answer and simply assume it is reliable. They won’t go any further. That’s what Professor Pfeiffer drilled into us.”

In 1980, Pfeiffer performed the marriage ceremony for Elsenhans and her husband, John.

Pfeiffer has published seven books and monographs, and the third edition of his classic textbook Concepts of Probability Theory, first published in 1965, remains in print.

“When I hear about research, I’m always interested in the underlying math,” Pfeiffer said. “I try to attend all the department’s colloquia, although their math has left me well behind since my retirement nine years ago. But I am interested in how things are developing. These are exciting times.”

–Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering. 

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