Frank W.J. Olver (1924-2013)

photo_olverFrank W.J. Olver died in Rockville, Maryland, on April 23, 2013, at the age of 88. He was a world-renowned applied mathematician and one of the most widely recognized contemporary scholars in the mathematical field of special functions.

Born in Croydon, England, Olver received B.Sc, M.SC and D.SC degrees in mathematics from the University of London in 1945, 1948 and 1961. During this period he was a founding member of the Mathematics Division and became Head of the Numerical Methods Section at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, U.K.

At the invitation of Milton Abramowitz, Olver came to the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Washington, DC, in 1957-58 to write the chapter Bessel Functions of Integer Order for the Handbook of Mathematical Functions (M. Abramowitz and I. Stegun, eds., 1964). This handbook went on to become one of the most widely distributed and highly cited scientific publications ever produced at NBS. In 1961 he joined the permanent staff of NBS.

Olver left NBS in 1986 to become professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland but he retained a faculty appointment at NBS, later renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), until the time of his death. Most notably, he served as the editor-in-chief and mathematics editor of the online NIST Digital Library of Mathematical Functions ( and its 966-page print companion, the NIST Handbook of Mathematical Functions (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Fitting capstones to Olver’s long career, these modern successors to the classic 1964 Abramowitz and Stegun handbook will extend its legacy well into the 21st century.

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Olver is particularly known for his comprehensive development of powerful methods for generating uniform asymptotic approximations to solutions of differential equations, i.e., functions that describe the behavior of the solutions as the independent variable and a parameter tend to infinity, and in the study of the particular solutions of differential equations known as special functions (e.g., Bessel functions, hypergeometric functions, Legendre functions). Having witnessed the birth of the computer age firsthand as a colleague of Alan Turing at NPL, Olver is also well known for his contributions to the development and analysis of numerical methods for computing special functions. This work and much else is documented in more than 100 publications, including the book Asymptotics and Special Functions (Academic Press, 1974, reprinted by AK Peters in 1997).

The 1,074-page commemorative volume, Selected Papers of F.W.J. Olver, was published in 2000 by World Scientific Publishing Co. In a review of that volume, Drexel University Professor Emeritus Jet Wimp said that the papers

exemplify a redoubtable mathematical talent, the work of a man who has done more than almost anyone else in the 20th century to bestow on the discipline of applied mathematics the elegance and rigor that its earliest practitioners, such as Gauss and Laplace, would have wished for it.

In 2011 Olver was honored with the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal and was inducted into the NIST Gallery of Distinguished Scientists, Engineers and Administrators. He was also a Fellow and charter member of the UK’s Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications (IMA), as well as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, and the memorial prize in economics.

Frank is survived by his wife Claire, children Peter and Sally (Sondergaard), and five grandchildren. Peter and his son Sheehan are continuing the Olver tradition in mathematics. Peter is head of the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota, and Sheehan is a lecturer in the School of Mathematics at the University of Sydney, Australia. For further obituaries, including one by Peter, see

Daniel Lozier, 12 May 2013


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