Rice mourns longtime CAAM professor Paul Pfeiffer
Paul Pfeiffer ’38, professor emeritus of computational and applied mathematics and one of Rice’s longest-serving faculty members, died Sunday in Austin at age 95. Pfeiffer taught full time at Rice for more than 50 years, served as dean of students for four years and played an instrumental role in establishing the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM).
“Paul influenced Rice’s development in many substantial ways,” said Matthias Heinkenschloss, professor and department chair in CAAM. “He was a beloved colleague, mentor, teacher and friend. We will miss him greatly.”
Pfeiffer earned three degrees from Rice: his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in 1938 and 1948, respectively, and his doctorate in mathematics in 1952. He also earned a Bachelor of Divinity from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in 1943.
His positions at Rice included chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering (1960-63), chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences (1974-75), dean of students (1965-69) and interim master of Wiess and Brown colleges.
Pfeiffer played a leadership role in forming CAAM, which was established in 1968 as the Department of Mathematical Sciences and renamed in 1992. Pfeiffer became chair of Rice’s Committee on Applied Mathematics and Systems Research in 1965 and wrote a memo that year proposing the creation of a new department of applied mathematical sciences. Prior to being renamed, the Department of Mathematical Sciences spun off the Department of Computer Science in 1985 and the Department of Statistics in 1987.
Heinkenschloss said Pfeiffer’s legacy as a teacher extends far beyond Rice’s hedges. “For example, when I was an undergraduate student in Germany in the mid-1980s, Paul’s book Probability for Applications was on reserve for one of my courses. When I visited China in 2010, I found a translation of the same book on the shelves in bookstores. Through his books, Paul continues to teach hundreds of students worldwide.”
Pfeiffer published seven books and monographs, including the classic Concepts of Probability Theory, which was first published in 1965 and remains in print.
Pfeiffer retired from Rice in 1988 but continued to teach until 1998 and participated in the daily life of the CAAM Department until moving to Austin in April. In honor of his commitment to teaching, the George R. Brown School of Engineering created the Paul Pfeiffer Instructorship Fund in 1991 to support postdoctoral instructors in CAAM and Statistics. In 1998, he was awarded the Association of Rice Alumni Gold Medal “for his profound influence on generations of Rice students as mentor, counselor and friend.”
Pfeiffer is survived by his wife of 70 years, Ruth, and four children.
Memorial Services will be at 1 p.m. Oct. 11 at Bellaire United Methodist Church, 4417 Bellaire Blvd., Bellaire, Texas.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Paul Pfeiffer Instructorship Fund. Checks should be made payable to Rice University, designated to the “Paul Pfeiffer Instructorship Fund” and mailed to the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics, c/o “Paul Pfeiffer Instructorship Fund,” Rice University, 6100 Main St., MS-134, Houston, TX 77005-1892.