James Bramble, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, dies at 90

Fri, 08/13/2021

Our friend and colleague Professor Emeritus James Bramble passed away on July 20, 2021, at his home in Austin, TX. He was 90 years old. His survivors include four children, a stepson, and eight grandchildren.

James Bramble earned his bachelor's degree from Brown University in 1953. He earned his Ph.D. degree from the University of Maryland in 1958, where he was a student of Lawrence Payne. After working for General Electric and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, he became a professor at the University of Maryland. He was recruited to Cornell in 1968 to join Professor Payne in creating a group in applied mathematics within the Mathematics Department and supporting the new Center for Applied Mathematics, which he later directed from 1975 to 1981. In 1970, Jim co-founded the Finite Element Circus, a conference devoted to the theory and applications of the finite element method, and related areas of numerical analysis and partial differential equations; he joined the virtual 50th anniversary of the conference in November, 2020. From 1975 to 1983, he was chief editor for the journal, Mathematics of Computation. Jim served as Associate Chair and Director of Undergraduate studies from 1981 through 1984. He retired from Cornell in 1994 and took up a Distinguished Professorship at Texas A&M University, where he retired as Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the early 21st century. He taught numerous undergraduate and graduate students, mentored 22 PhD students, and had colleagues throughout the world.

Much of Jim's research focused on numerical methods for partial differential equations. His early work involved the mathematical analysis of finite difference methods for elliptic problems. His later work was more focused on the numerical analysis of finite element methods. His work on multigrid and domain decomposition methods exemplified applied mathematics that bridges rigorous theory and practical numerical computation. Perhaps his most famous result, the Bramble-Hilbert Lemma provides an essential inequality for proving error estimates for the finite element method. This was a collaborative effort with his PhD student, Stephen Hilbert.

In 1985, Professor Bramble received an honorary doctorate from Chalmers University in Sweden in recognition of his important contributions to mathematics. The citation read, "James H. Bramble is a leader in the theory of modern numerical methods. He contributed early to the sound mathematical foundation of the finite difference method and later did path-breaking work on the mathematics of the finite element method . . . His elegant mathematical style is a source of inspiration to researchers throughout the world."

In 1978, Jim married Margaret (Peggy) Hays, now deceased. Evidently drawn to Austin for the possibility of year-round tennis, Jim and Peggy returned to their lakeside cottage Ithaca every summer.  They enjoyed entertaining friends and family, playing golf and tennis, and boating. 

His obituary in the Cornell Chronicle can be found here.

James Bramble seated behind a desk in an office