“I thought,” he continued, “that unless I was, I wouldn’t really be able to do much in mathematics. I didn’t realize that a less talented person could still contribute effectively.”
John Torrence Tate was born in Minneapolis on March 13, 1925. His father, also named John Torrence Tate, was a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota; his mother, Lois (Fossler) Tate, was a high school English teacher. While in college at Harvard, he volunteered for a naval officer training program in which he learned meteorology and did mine-sweeping research.
He graduated from Harvard in 1946 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He was discharged from the Navy the same year without ever having stepped on a ship.
He then started graduate school at Princeton. “Since my father was a physicist, that field seemed more human and accessible to me,” Dr. Tate recalled in the American Mathematical Society interview, “and I thought that was a safer way to go, where I might contribute more.”
After one term he realized that his true interest was mathematics and switched departments, completing his doctoral degree in 1950. In his thesis, Dr. Tate recast a 1920 finding by the German mathematician Erich Hecke, and though it did not prove a new result, it opened up new avenues of inquiry for other mathematicians.
“Tate gave it an entirely new spin,” said Benedict Gross, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego, and another of Dr. Tate’s graduate students. “It was really a fundamental reformulation.”
Dr. Tate published relatively few papers, but the ones he did publish were clear and concise and held fundamental findings. “When he finished thinking about a subject, it was understood,” Dr. Gross said. “There were no loose ends lying around.”