Obituary: Gerald L. Thompson / CMU professor who incorporated math into business problems

Nov. 25, 1923 - Nov. 9, 2009

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The life's work of Carnegie Mellon University professor emeritus Gerald L. Thompson was finding the best way to do things.

That involved solving problems such as how many cars to paint in each color so that they would sell. Or how to schedule airline crews. Or how to transport goods from source to destination.

Solving these problems involved using math-based optimization techniques.

Dr. Thompson was so good at it that he was the IBM professor of systems and operations research in the then-Graduate School of Industrial Administration at CMU, now known as the Tepper School of Business.

Dr. Thompson, 85, of Fox Chapel, died Monday at UPMC St. Margaret after a stroke.

Dr. Thompson had a reputation as a modest man even though he wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books and more than 150 articles in academic journals and consulted for a number of businesses, including IBM, Bethlehem Steel, PPG, Bain, Westinghouse and General Motors.

"All of his students adored him because he was a very giving person. He was always nice and pleasant and had a permanent smile on his face," said Ilker Baybars, deputy dean of Tepper.

Dr. Thompson enjoyed coming up with new ideas, new technologies and new methodologies to handle problems better, Dr. Baybars said.

Dr. Thompson's first book, written with two co-authors and published in 1957, was "Introduction to Finite Mathematics," which explored topics such as probability and game theory and became a foundation for the management science curriculum.

"This was the first book which introduced mathematics into the study of management and business problems," said Egon Balas, Carnegie Mellon's university professor of industrial administration and applied mathematics.

Dr. Balas said some of the other significant works Dr. Thompson co-authored were an article on the double description method in the 1950s, which helped to describe a polyhedron, and a 1981 book, "Computational Economics," which dealt with the application of computers to do economic analysis.

Born in Rolfe, Iowa, Dr. Thompson earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Iowa State University, a master's in math from MIT and a doctorate in math from the University of Michigan. He served in the U.S. Navy in the 1940s.

He taught at Princeton University, Dartmouth College and Ohio Wesleyan University before joining CMU in 1959. CMU noted his retirement in a 2001 publication although he continued to work on problems.

Dr. Thompson met his wife, Dorothea, whom he married in 1954, while he was working at Princeton. Both enjoyed folk dancing and met at a local dance.

During his career, he traveled to many international conferences. His retirement travel included two trips centered on seeing operas in Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe.

He and his wife were ardent supporters of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Allison of Squirrel Hill; Emily of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Abigail of O'Hara.

The date for a memorial service has not been set.

Funeral arrangements are by Weddell-Ajak Funeral Home in Aspinwall.

The family suggests contributions to the Pittsburgh Opera.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955.


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