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In memoriam: Professor Emeritus Stephen Prager

Department of Chemistry Professor Emeritus Stephen Prager died, Saturday, January 2, 2016, at the age of 87, in Saint Paul, MN. He was a professor of physical chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota for more than 40 years, 1952 to 1990.

Prager was born on July 20, 1928, in Darmstadt, Germany. During the Nazi period, he emigrated with his family to Turkey and then to the United State. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1947 from Brown University in Providence, RI, and his doctorate in physical chemistry from Cornell University in 1951. He spent a post-doctoral year as a Jewett Fellow at the University of Utah from 1951 to 1952, before joining the faculty at the U of M as an assistant professor. He was promoted associate professor in 1956, and to full professor in 1962.

Prager was a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Scholar at the University of Brussels from 1958 to 1959, where he worked with Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine. Later, he was a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Lecturer from 1966 to 1967 at the University of Erlangen, Germany, where he also served as a visiting professor.

His research was in the area of the physical chemistry of macromolecules, particularly in the application of mathematics to rheology. His colleague C. Alden Mead wrote a tribute about Prager that was published in the Theoretic Chimica Acta in 1992. Mead noted that Prager was the founder of the Theoretical Chemistry Group at Minnesota, which, in 1952, was not only unusual, but also not necessarily desirable in a a chemistry department. Today, the Department of Chemistry’s Chemical Theory Center is one of the most renowned in the country.

“Steve's early and continuing achievements certainly have done much to pave the way for the growth and prosperity of that discipline at Minnesota and elsewhere,” wrote Mead. He also wrote that Prager made many important contributions to theoretical chemistry, particularly, in various areas of statistical mechanics and in molecular quantum mechanics. He also pioneered teaching techniques that combined both classical and statistical thermodynamics.

Prager served as assistant editor of the Transactions of the Society of Rheology and as associate editor of the Journal of Physical Chemistry. He also was a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He retired in 1990, and was honored with a two-day special symposium on polymer theory and related topics, called Pragerfest, in October 1990.

Stephen met his wife Julianne while at Cornell University. She, too, graduated from Brown University, and earned her doctorate in organic chemistry from Cornell University. She worked as a synthetic polymer chemist and fluoroxy chemist at 3M. She worked at 3M for more than 37 years, ending her career serving as 3M’s executive director of Corporate Technical Planning and Coordination.

The Pragers have supported the Department of Chemistry for many years. They established the Chemistry Faculty Support Fund and have made a bequest that will create the Prager Chair in Macromolecular Science through their estate plans.

He is survived by his wife, Julie, his sister-in-law Janet Gourley of Kittery, Maine, his cousin Inge Staffa and family of Berlin, Germany, as well as many friends and colleagues here in Minnesota and around the world.

Julie Prager is hosting a memorial open-house event in celebration of Professor Prager from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, February 28, in the Auditorium at Waverly Gardens, 5919 Centerville Rd, North Oaks, MN 55127-6828. She extends an invitation to faculty and friends. Snacks and cocktails will be served.

His obituary was published in the Star Tribune, January 13, 2016.