Mathematician Carl R. de Boor modestly says that his groundbreaking work with splines, the piecewise polynomial functions that enable much of modern computer-aided design, was simply a result of the fact that they were relatively unknown when he started working on them. But his real luck likely came earlier, when he survived childhood in Nazi Germany and navigated through the politics of a divided country to get an education before immigrating to the United States in the late 1950’s.

De Boor studied math at Harvard as a graduate student, but after only a year, went to work for General Motors’ research division in Michigan in 1960. There he began his work with splines, developing effective methods for using the flexible functions to make drastic improvements to the design of everything from new fonts to the hulls of aircraft.

Following his work at General Motors, de Boor pursued an academic track, receiving a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1996, and eventually found a long-term home as a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Now retired from the University, de Boor continues to collaborate with colleagues to address the mathematical challenges of our time.

By Jeremy Gordon