Known as the cowboy of mathematics, Colorado-born Donald Clayton Spencer once said he felt like his fly was constantly open around his intellectual peers. But as uncomfortable as he often was, that didn’t prevent him from making giant strides in the fields of geometry and mathematical physics.
Spencer eventually returned to Colorado to live out his retirement hiking and racing his Jeep up and down the rocky terrain. But before he could enjoy the dangerous life of a retired cowboy, he had to navigate the complex world of academia, bouncing between MIT, Stanford and Princeton, mentoring a number of brilliant students that included John Nash. In 1948, Spencer won the esteemed Bocher Memorial Prize for a book he co-authored on variables in schlicht functions. In 1954, he won the coveted Fields medal for his theory on deformation of structures he developed with Kunihiko Kodaira, which Spencer likened to un-sewing a patchwork quilt and re-stitching it in different patterns.
By Lauren Clason