In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus H. Chandler Davis (1926-2022)

October 3, 2022 by A&S News

Chandler Davis was born into an old American family deeply committed to making this world a better place. He carried this dedication forward through his entire life. A brilliant mathematician, he was also a poet, composer, and writer of science fiction. He enlisted at the age of 17 into the US Navy in World War II. In 1948, while still a student at Harvard University, he met Natalie Zemon, and they agreed to found a marriage of genuine equality. They went on to have three children, Aaron, Hannah, and Simone.

After receiving his doctorate in 1950, Chandler taught mathematics at the University of Michigan. Subpoenaed by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1953-1954, he refused to answer their questions on the grounds that they violated the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. He was then fired from his post at the University of Michigan and charged with contempt of Congress. Though he lost his court challenge and had to serve a six-months sentence in prison in 1960, his case raised awareness of the dangers of HUAC to a democratic society.

Escaping continuing persecution in the US, Chandler moved to Canada in 1962. For thirty years he taught in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Toronto, teaching generations of students and encouraging the role of women in mathematics. He is known for his work in linear algebra and for being one of the inventers of fractals, most notably the dragon curve. Chandler was recognized in his field by his election as Vice-President of the American Mathematical Society.

An early opponent of the U.S. in Viet Nam, Chandler was the chairman of the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme and frequently hosted draft-dodgers in his family home. He also was active in Science For Peace. For decades every Friday he stood in the Toronto Vigil against the Occupation of the Territories, a movement inspired by the Women in Black in Israel. He regularly attended the Academic Freedom Lectures established in Ann Arbor in the 1990s by the University of Michigan Faculty Senate to express its disapproval of the University’s treatment of faculty like him who had been attacked by HUAC.

In his later years, Chandler served as an editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer, as well as composing poetry and songs, some of them recently printed up in a volume of Art Songs. Not long before his death, from his hospital bed, he co-organized and spoke at an online event in support of an imprisoned dissident Russian mathematician.

Chandler is survived by his wife Natalie Zemon Davis, his son Aaron Davis (Candida Girling), daughters Hannah Davis Taieb and Simone Davis (Peter Armstrong), grandchildren Sofia Szamosi Siera (Johnny Siera), Niamh Girling (Mira Martin-Gray), Gabriel Davis (Leah Hartley) and Carlos Taieb (Amélie Girbal), and great grandchild Coco Siera. Like Chandler, his family is grateful to Cyndi Stapleton and Dianne Williams, whose able care brought comfort and dignity to his last days.

Donations in his honor can be made to the Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund supporting students working for social change, or to Greenpeace Canada, or to B’Tselem, the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.