Donald Earle Carlson

Born: 8 March 1938 in Tampico, Illinois, USA
Died: 21 August 2010 in St Louis, Missouri, USA

Don Carlson's parents were Glen Hjalmer Carlson (1907-1973) and Dorothy Smith (1909-2001). Glen Carlson was one of the five son's of Carl Hjalmer Carlson (1870-1959), a Swedish immigrant, and Carrie Nelson (1878-1951). Dorothy Smith, one of the two daughters of Earle Smith and Mabel Remington, married Glen Carlson in April 1937 in Tampico, a small town about 180 km west of Chicago and 70 km east of Davenport. Both families were staunch members of the Baptist Church and Dorothy was an organist and pianist at the Tampico Baptist Church from the age of fourteen. Let us note that Dorothy and her sister Eleanor attended Tampico Grade School at the same time as Ronald Regan, who later became an actor and President of the United States, and Ronald Regan's older brother Neil.

Don was the eldest of his parents' two children, having a younger brother Alan. The boys grew up in Tampico where Don attended Tampico Grade School being in the seventh grade in 1950. He moved to Tampico High School in the following year and graduated in 1956 as the best student in his year. He decided that the subject that he wanted to study at university was mechanical engineering and, in the autumn of 1956, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to begin his studies. However he became [3]:-

... frustrated with the ad-hoc presentation and lack of rigour of his class in thermodynamics,
and, when a new course in Engineering Mechanics was set up in 1958, Carlson switched to major in this. He was awarded his B.S. in 1960, graduating with Bronze Tablet honours. The Bronze Tablet, containing the names of the top ranked graduating students, is placed in the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Carlson was then awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship and remained at Urbana-Champaign to undertake work for his Master's Degree. He worked in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics where he was employed as a teaching assistant. Advised by Marvin Stippes, he completed his Master's Degree in 1961. Carlson applied to Brown University and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a place to study for a doctorate. Both institutions offered him a place and he decided to accept the offer from Brown University which had a very active research group in mechanics. He began his studies at Brown University in 1961, funded by a fellowship.

In August 1961, before beginning his doctoral studies, Carlson married Susan Kay Renkes at the Emmanuel Reformed Church in Morrison, Illinois, a town about 30 km north of Tampico. Susan was the daughter of Everett Renkes (1907-1975), from Tampico, and Louise Renkes (1913-2004), and the couple had a "double ring ceremony" with Carlson's brother Alan as best man. After the wedding Don and Susan Carlson went to Wisconsin for their honeymoon before moving to their new home at 298 Governor Street, Providence, Rhode Island. Don and Susan Carlson had two sons, Jeffery and Jonathan.

Now one of the reasons that Carlson had chosen Brown University was the fact that Eli Sternberg worked there. However, Sternberg took sabbatical leave in 1961-62 so Carlson had to choose another member of the faculty to advise him during his doctoral studies. His doctoral supervisor became Richard Shield, but during his three years undertaking research for his Ph.D. it was Sternberg who was a major influence [3]:-

... it was Eli Sternberg who had perhaps the most profound influence on Carlson's thinking and approach to mechanics throughout his career.
Carlson was awarded his Ph.D. in 1965 for his thesis Second and Higher Order Effects in a Class of Problems in Plane Finite Elasticity. In the same year he published, jointly with his thesis advisor Richard Shield, a paper with the same title as his thesis. Albert Green writes in a review:-
The authors obtain power series expansions in terms of a parameter e for plane deformations of incompressible, isotropic homogeneous elastic bodies. For a special class of problems and a particular choice of e, the terms involving even powers of e in the expansion for the displacement field can be computed without solving a boundary value problem once the earlier terms in the expansion are known.
Although he was happy at Brown University, Carlson always had a love of his native part of the country [3]:-
On a road trip home once with his young family, as they came once again to the cornfields of Illinois, Carlson rolled down the window and delighted in the familiar and welcome smell.
He was delighted, therefore, to be offered a position as assistant professor in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He took up this position in 1964 and continued to work there for the rest of his career. He was promoted to associate professor in 1967 and a full professor in 1970. He served as head of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from 1970 to 1984. James W Phillips, Professor and Associate Head of the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes [2]:-
Professor Carlson advised hundreds of undergraduate students, and served on innumerable qualifying, preliminary, and final examinations at the graduate level. He advised or co-advised 15 doctoral students in mechanics. Carlson's 1972 treatise on linear thermoelasticity in the 'Handbuch der Physik' is highly regarded, and his many papers on applied mechanics are widely acclaimed. He was named an American Academy of Mechanics Fellow in 1988, and later received the AAM Lifetime Service Award (2005). Carlson was editor of the 'Journal of Elasticity' (1982-1997), and served on the editorial board of the 'Journal of Thermal Stress' for 22 years (1978-2000).
The authors of [3] write about Carlson's talents as a teacher:-
His lectures were always well organized, contained neither superfluous details nor too little information, and attested to both much practice and preparation. To step into Carlson's office was to enter a world of knowledge completely filled with books. In fact, he could often be seen working there late at night, long after most (including graduate students) had called it a day. The results of these efforts can be seen in the meticulously crafted, handwritten notes with his impeccable script, which he distributed in his graduate classes and ultimately became prized possessions for his students. Carlson also pursued depth in his undergraduate courses and would, for instance, go beyond the usual, superficial definition of stress as force divided by area. He also always had time for students to drop by his office to ask questions or chat. His popularity among undergraduates can be seen in Carlson being named an honorary Knight of St Pat, one of the signal awards bestowed by the College of Engineering's students on one of its faculty.
Carlson retired in 2006 but continued to undertake research and write papers. He died of pancreatic cancer at Barnes Jewish Hospital, St Louis. His son Jonathan Carlson's home was in St Louis.

We have mentioned already several honours which were given to Carlson. We must, finally, mention the special part of the Journal of Elasticity (Part 1, Volume 104, 2011) which was issued in his honour. The editors write in the Foreword [1]:-

Don made an impact on the field of continuum mechanics, both with his research contributions and with his dedication to graduate education. Always careful to respect fundamental issues in his papers and his course lectures, he was at the same time mindful that theoretical mechanics serves an essential role in the advancement of engineering and technology. He was a great advocate for theoretical and applied mechanics throughout his life, not only at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, but also at the national level with his presence on various committees and panels. Don was a kind and thoughtful person who was not only passionate about work but also possessed extraordinary social skills and a pleasing and magnetic personality. His advice was always thoughtful and personally directed and he truly was an unselfish and considerate individual. Though he was not self-promoting, he contributed importantly to the advancement of continuum mechanics in his publications, his classroom lectures, and with his very presence. He was widely appreciated as a person and for his contributions, as is evidenced by the great number of papers and associated accolades that are contained within these two volumes.

Article by: Lech Maligranda, Lulea University of Technology, Sweden.

July 2012
MacTutor History of Mathematics