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William Pitt Durfee, LL.D. '22

Professor of Mathematics
1884-1929

October 16, 1993

William Pitt Durfee, one of 13 children of Reuben Stark Durfee and Mary Whightman Durfee, was born in Livonia, Michigan, February 5, 1855, and died in Geneva, New York, December 17, 1941. As dean of Hobart College for 37 years, acting president of the College four times, and mathematics professor for 45 years, Dr. Durfee was “one of the most loved personalities in the history of Hobart.”

Dr. Durfee showed an early aptitude for mathematics, having passed beyond high school mathematics by the time he was 12. In 1876 he received an A.B. degree with honors from the University of Michigan. Following graduation he moved to California, where he taught mathematics at the University of California, Mound College, San Francisco, and helped establish and taught at the Berkeley School.

In 1883 he received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. While at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Durfee was a protégé of James Joseph Sylvester, “one of the leading mathematicians of the 19th Century.” Dr. Durfee began his distinguished teaching career at Hobart in 1884 and is known to have inspired many students both inside and outside the classroom.

In 1888 he was appointed “the first dean of an American liberal-arts college,” a position he held until 1925. He was known as “genial Durf” and was involved with many aspects of campus life. In 1918 he started the Student Army Training Corps, which helped the Colleges survive the difficult war years. His textbook, Elements of Plane Trigonometry, published in 1900, was a widely used text.

Upon his retirement, the Alumni Council cited Dean Durfee for his distinguished service to Hobart during nearly half a century as professor of mathematics and for his notable achievements in scholarships; “for his discerning and sympathetic work as the pioneer dean of a liberal-arts college; for his record of square dealing with all the students of the College; for his radiant humor; for his reassuring smile; for his knowledge of the mind and character of youth; for his sympathetic help to generations of Hobart Men in their personal problems; and because of the respect and love in which he is held by all Hobart Men.”

Because of his dual role as teacher and dean and his long tenure at Hobart, he touched generations of Hobart men in both a nurturing and scholarly manner. His sociability and his classroom instructions distinguished him as a teacher of the whole man. He taught kindliness, patience, and understanding as much as he taught mathematics. He taught as much by example as he did by classroom lectures and exercises.