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Hassler Whitney, 1907-1989



With the death of Hassler Whitney on May 10, 1989, the Club has lost one of the best known early climbers on the American scene and one of its most distinguished scientific members. Hassler was a friend to many of us who were active rock climbers in New England in the twenties and thirties. He has now become a byword to the present-day climbers in the region through his association with the Whitney-Gilman route on Cannon Mountain, of which he made the first ascent in 1930 with his cousin Bradley B. Gilman, who was later to become a president of the Club.

He was born in New York City on March 23, 1907. He attended Yale from which he graduated with a PhB in 1928 and a MusB in 1929, which reflect his two interests: logical thought and music. He was an accomplished performer on the violin and the viola. He went on to obtain a PhD in mathematics at Harvard in 1932 and followed that interest for the rest of his life. He continued his career at Harvard, serving as Instructor of Mathematics from 1932 to 1935 while doubling as tutor from 1933 to 1935, then becoming Assistant, Associate and finally full Professor from 1946 to 1952. That latter year he left Harvard to take the post of Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, from which he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1977.

Hassler had an active family life, marrying Margaret Howell in 1930, with whom he had three children: James Newcomb, Carol and Marion. In 1955, he married Mary Garfield, and they had two children: Sarah Newcomb and Emily Baldwin. After her death, he married Barbara Osterman, by whom he is survived.

He developed early an interest in mountaineering, starting at the age of 14 with the ascents of the Breithom, the Cime de l’Est of the Dents du Midi, and the Combin de Corbassière. The next year he returned to the Alps and started climbing without guides. He continued returning to the Alps every few years, doing guideless climbs in the Chamonix district, the Pennines and the Bernese Oberland. In 1934, he climbed the Grand Teton, but he seemed to prefer the Alps for his climbing recreation.

Hassler was not only highly regarded but very distinguished in his field of mathematics. With his perceptive mind, he developed many new lines of thought and ideas in that field. He was a Fulbright exchange professor at the Collège de France in 1957 and received several honorary degrees and special awards and honors from scientific societies. Despite the eminence of his status as a mathematician, he was a very modest and unassuming person whom we shall greatly miss.

Kenneth A. Henderson