In Memoriam: Mathematician Walter Feit, Pioneer in Finite Group Theory

Mathematician Walter Feit, a Yale professor for 40 years, died at age 73 after a long illness on July 29, 2004 at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, CT.

Mathematician Walter Feit, a Yale professor for 40 years, died at age 73 after a long illness on July 29, 2004 at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, CT.

Professor Feit was a pure mathematician whose contributions provided fundamental infrastructure used in algebra, geometry, topology, number theory, and logic. His work aided the development of practical applications in areas including cryptography, chemistry, and physics.

Professor Feit’s 1963 paper with John G. Thompson, “Solvability of Groups of Odd Order,” filled an entire issue of the Pacific Journal of Mathematics and is widely regarded as the most influential paper ever written on finite group theory. It energized the field, providing both inspiration and technical tools for the research that finally culminated in the complete classification of simple finite groups.

Finite group theory was only one of several areas invigorated by Professor Feit’s insights. His paper with Graham Higman on combinatorial structures became a fundamental building block and stimulated a large body of research. His work on Schur indices revitalized progress in that subject, as well.

Feit joined the Yale faculty of mathematics in 1964. He served the Yale mathematics department in several administrative roles, acting as Director of Undergraduate Studies, Director of Graduate Studies, and Chairman. His standing in the mathematics community was marked by award of the American Mathematical Society Cole Prize in Algebra, election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, editorship of various journals, and Vice-Presidency of the International Mathematical Union.

Walter Feit was born in Vienna, Austria in 1930. In August of 1939, his parents saved his life by placing him on the last train (KinderTransport) allowed to carry Jewish children out of Austria. He arrived in England just as the British government was evacuating all children from London. After being relocated a few times, he settled in a refugee hostel in Oxford. In 1943 he won a scholarship to an Oxford technical high school. His teachers were very encouraging and he recorded that it was at this time that he became “passionately interested in mathematics.”

In 1946 he moved to the United States to stay with an aunt and uncle. The following September he entered the University of Chicago and joined its energetic mathematical community. Within 4 years he had obtained the University’s Master’s degree in mathematics; he later received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. In 1953, at the age of 22, he joined the Cornell University mathematics faculty.

Feit visited Oxford many times, but the 1990 “International Symposium on the Inverse Galois Problem” held there in honor of his 60th birthday was an especially joyful occasion.

In October 2003, on the eve of Professor Feit’s retirement, colleagues and former students gathered at Yale at a special four-day “Conference on Groups, Representations and Galois Theory” to honor him and his contributions. Nearly 80 researchers from around the world met to exchange ideas in the fields he had helped to create.

Professor Feit is survived by his wife, Dr. Sidnie Feit of Hamden, Connecticut, his son, professor of mathematics Paul Feit of Odessa, Texas and his daughter, artist Alexandra Feit of Haines, Alaska.

A memorial service is planned for 10:15 A.M., Sunday October 10, 2004 at the New Haven Lawn Club, 193 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, CT.

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