Carnegie Mellon University
April 11, 2017

Obituary: Juan Jorge Schäffer

By Emily Payne

Juan Jorge Schäffer, professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, died Feb. 12. He was 86.

Schäffer was born March 10, 1930, in Vienna, Austria. Schäffer’s family left Austria in 1938, a few months before World War II began on what he thought was a ski trip to Switzerland. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Schäffer would not return to his home in Austria. He remained in Switzerland with another family while his parents returned to their home to gather what belongings they could. After short stays in Switzerland and France, the family emigrated to Uruguay in 1939.

Schäffer completed his undergraduate studies in Uruguay and his doctoral studies in Switzerland, where he obtained doctorates in electrical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and in mathematics from the University of Zürich in 1956.

In 1957, Schäffer returned to Uruguay to teach engineering and mathematics at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo before coming to Carnegie Mellon in 1968. He joined the Carnegie Mellon faculty as a professor of mathematics, a position he held until his death.

Throughout his academic career, Schäffer published two research monographs, two textbooks and more than 80 research papers. His research focused on functional analysis and differential equations and on geometry in the setting of infinite dimensional spaces. Schäffer’s research in these areas had significant impact, and a particular class of infinite-dimensional spaces important in this work now carries his name. He also supervised three doctoral dissertations.

“Juan contributed greatly to the development of the mathematical studies and honors programs in the department in the early 1970s. He wrote two sets of notes for mathematical studies and taught in the honors program for many years. These programs remain central parts of the undergraduate curriculum,” said Russell Walker, teaching professor and acting director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

In fact, Schäffer’s years initiating and teaching the curriculum and advising students in the honors program later inspired his book Basic Languages of Mathematics, which was published in 2014 by World Scientific when Schäffer was 84 years old.

Outside of the department, Schäffer was active in university governance. He served several terms on the Faculty Senate and two terms as chair of the Faculty Organization, helping to develop several key faculty governance policies. He also served as associate dean of the Mellon College of Science from 1986-1993 and as acting dean in 1991.

But his true home was always in teaching mathematics, both to Carnegie Mellon students and high school students who came to the university’s campus for the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences.

“Juan considered his participation in the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences since 1986 to be one of his most rewarding activities. He ran a problem seminar and supervised a team project every summer, and in recent years, also offered an elective course on the origin of mathematical ideas,” said Walker.

Emeritus Professor of Mathematics David Owen credits Schäffer’s own prodigious penchant for problem solving and eagerness to answer mathematical questions for inspiring students to use mathematical tools to solve everyday problems. His seminars became an important component of the popular mathematical studies course, and the principles taught in the course have shaped students’ learning far beyond their years at Carnegie Mellon.

History was another great passion of Schäffer’s. This led him to develop a history of mathematics course at MCS; he also frequently contributed to archonotology.org, a site that records the history of world leaders. Schäffer contributed to his own personal history as well. In an oral history interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Branch, he told the story of his family and his life, from his escape from Nazi-occupied Austria to his career as a mathematician.

A true scholar, Schäffer was a respected mathematician, a history enthusiast and a lover of languages—he was fluent in English, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese. He used his linguistic talents to help his late wife, Inés, host international visitors to Pittsburgh and as a volunteer translator for foreign patients at Pittsburgh hospitals, including for the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Thomas Starzl, a pioneer in transplant surgery.

He is survived by his son, Alejandro Schäffer, daughter-in-law, Beth, and grandson, Daniel.

Memorial donations may be made to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Washington, D.C. 20024 or Carnegie Mellon University Department of Mathematical Sciences, Wean Hall 6113, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.