Walter Hetherington Durfee, Sc.D. '59

Professor of Mathematics

October 16, 1993

Walter Hetherington Durfee was born in Geneva in 1889. He was tutored privately by his father, Professor William Pitt Durfee, and by his mother’s uncle, Dr. Joseph McDaniels, head of the Classics Department at Hobart College. Walter had a natural aptitude for his studies and entered Hobart at the age of 15. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1908, at the age of 19.

He earned the M.C.E. degree from Harvard in 1911 and, after 10 years working as a professional engineer, he returned to Geneva and began his 38-year career as a teacher of mathematics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He was appointed head of the Mathematics Department in 1929 and received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1930. His students remember him as a complete teacher who guided them through the difficulties of calculus and its practical applications in probability, physics and chemistry. His dry wit, practical nature and infinite patience in and out of the classroom convinced all students that they could master the mysteries of applied mathematics.

In 1937, Durfee was appointed acting dean of Hobart College and dean in 1938. For a brief period, he served in an interim role as acting president after the untimely death of President John Milton Potter in 1947, and was appointed to the newly created post of provost in 1948. When he was dean, he sought out and brought to the Colleges many fine teachers, whom he nurtured and encouraged.

During his career he received many citations for excellence as a teacher, a friend to students, and a leader in the fortunes of the Colleges. In one citation, presented to him by the William Smith Alumnae Council, his former students said of him:

“For nearly 40 years you have been a firm friend of young people at Hobart and William Smith never forgot what is most important in the search for understanding, the regard of the teacher for the student. Above all, we are grateful for the high standard of excellence which you raised for us and graciousness with which you did so.”

A contributor of technical articles in several mathematical and chemical periodicals, he was a member of several mathematical societies, an active walker, skier and mountain hiker. Despite his heavy responsibilities at the Colleges, he also found time to serve his church and his city. When he retired in 1959, Durfee was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Science, and he still found time and energy to teach classes in advanced mathematics and serve as adviser to Honors candidates.

Durfee died in his sleep on Dec. 21, 1973. He was deeply mourned by the many people whose lives he had touched.



Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Geneva, NY 14456
(315) 781-3000

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