Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Prager, William

William Prager (1903-1980), professor of applied mathematics, was born in Karlsruhe, Germany on May 23, 1903. He was educated at the Institute of Technology at Darmstadt and became a professor in the Institute of Technology at Karlsruhe and a consultant to the Fiesler Aircraft Company at Kassel. In the early 1930s Prager was already a recognized expert in the fields of vibrations, plasticity, and the theory of structures. He served as acting director of the Institute of Applied Mathematics at the University of Güttingen, but was dismissed in 1933 for his anti-Nazi views. He successfully sued the German government of Hitler, winning a year’s back pay and an offer to return to his work. He had by this time felt it best to leave Germany for Turkey, so he resigned. At 30 he was so well known that the offer of the professorship of mechanics at Istanbul University allowed him four years to learn Turkish so that he could lecture. He learned in two years and wrote four mathematical texts in Turkish.

In 1941, when Brown University was beginning a program of Advanced Instruction and Research in Mechanics and was in need of a director, Dean Roland G. D. Richardson of the Graduate School, himself a mathematician, wanted Prager. President Wriston, in spite of earlier experiences with “picture brides,” was willing to bring Prager to Brown, sight unseen, and have him develop a new and unfunded department. It was also in Prager’s interest, with the war expanding, to leave Europe, but it was not easy. As a German citizen of military age, he was not able to travel through German-held territories. As a person with relatives in Germany, he had difficulty in obtaining a visa. The planned itinerary via Odessa to Japan to San Francisco was out when Germany attacked Russia. A telegram to his colleague, Otto Neugebauer, at Brown on the seriousness of his situation read, “US Visa Cancelled / Cabled Details Dean / Furniture Sold / Position Resigned / Situation Here Expected Deteriorate Soon / Impossible Stay for Czechoslovakians / Implore Help / Willy.” Prager, his wife and 12-year-old son finally traveled by train to Bagdad, by plane to Karachi, India, and by ship, the President Monroe, from Bombay around Capetown to New York, a forty-day journey which brought them to the United State in November 1941. Prager assembled a staff, bringing important men from Europe, and created the Applied Mathematics Division at Brown. In 1965 he left Brown to become professor of applied mechanics at the San Diego campus of the University of California. He was asked to come back in 1968. At the age of 68 he accepted the highest honor of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which is honorary membership. He was cited “for distinguished contributions to the theory and practice of engineering through his original research and his inspirational teaching, and particularly for his world-wide leadership in the field of theoretical and applied mechanics.” At that time he was also still continuing to teach and, at his own request, was teaching a freshman engineering course. He liked freshmen because “The challenge with older students is to open their minds to new viewpoints. But, freshmen, ah, they are a pleasure to instruct.” After his retirement in 1973, Prager lived in Savognin, Switzerland. In 1974 he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, the highest honor in France for a scientist who is not a French citizen. He died in Savognin on March 17, 1980.