Jean-Pierre G. Meyer, former professor and chairman of the Johns Hopkins University mathematics department whose escape from Nazi-occupied France became the subject of a children's book, died April 24 of heart failure at his Guilford residence. He was 83.
"He was conscientious and really very smart and kind, and that's not always a combination that goes together," said W. Stephen Wilson, a close friend and math department colleague.
"He was department chairman for five years and no one has been chairman for five years since the 1980s to today," said Dr. Wilson. "That shows the respect they had for him and the department. He really had universal respect."
Jean-Pierre Gustave Meyer was born in Lyon, France. His father, Jules, was a shopkeeper, and his mother, Germaine, was a homemaker.
With the fall of France in 1940, after the German invasion, Dr. Meyer and his family, who were Jewish, remained for a while in Lyon. They moved to Paris and then to St. Georges, a small village in the French countryside, in an attempt to escape Nazi persecution.
"His father died while in the lengthy and difficult process of assembling the papers that would allow the family to leave France, pass through Spain and Portugal, and enter the United States," said a daughter, Susan Lynn Meyer, an author and English professor who teaches at Wellesley College.
"When he first put foot on American soil, at the age of 13, he was wearing only bedroom slippers," said Ms. Meyer. "He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied France, and his only pair of shoes had been stolen during the voyage."
Dr. Meyer, his mother and sister, along with other Jewish refugees, were aboard the Carvalho Araujo, a Portuguese passenger liner that departed from Lisbon and landed in Baltimore on Nov. 2, 1942.
"It was one week before the Nazis occupied the whole of France," said Ms. Meyer, who lives in Sherborn, Mass.
The family immediately settled in New York City, where Dr. Meyer's mother supported her family while working in an office and as a seamstress.
The story of the family's escape inspired an award-winning children's novel, "Black Radishes," that was written by Ms. Meyer and published by Random House in 2010.
"The book was dedicated to him," she said.
Dr. Meyer, who was interested in math from an early age, was a 1946 graduate of Stuyvesant High School. He attended City College of New York for two years, before earning a bachelor's degree in 1950 from Cornell University, where he also received his doctorate in mathematics.
He served in the Army as a mathematician, doing ballistics calculations at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Discharged in 1956, he taught for a semester at Syracuse University, and then for a year at Brown University before joining the Hopkins faculty in 1957.
In 1958, he married the former Marilyn Pettit, a Hopkins graduate student in math; the couple had six children. The marriage ended in divorce.
Dr. Meyer's work in mathematics was in the field of algebraic topology, which employs abstract algebra in the study of topological spaces, family members said.
"He was a charming man and very European," said Dr. Gabrielle Martino, a consultant who had studied under Dr. Meyer as a graduate student in the 1980s. "He was a wonderful adviser and he was a very easy teacher to learn from."
From 1985 to 1990, Dr. Meyer was chairman of the math department. In 1988, Dr. Meyer and his colleague, Jun-Ichi Igusa, persuaded Hopkins to fund the Japan-U.S. Mathematics Institute, or JAMI, whose purpose was to foster cooperation between the two countries in mathematical research.
Dr. Meyer was vice director and then served as the institute's director from 1990 to 2000. In 2006, JAMI won the Mathematical Society of Japan's Seki-Takakazu Prize, named for a 17th-century Japanese mathematical prodigy.
He retired in 2001.
Dr. Meyer and a son, Steven Meyer of Harding, N.J., established and endowed the Jean-Pierre and Steven Meyer scholarships, which are awarded annually to two outstanding Hopkins undergraduates, one in the math department in the School for Arts and Sciences, and one in the applied mathematics department of the Whiting School of Engineering.
In the 1990s, Dr. Meyer married the former Roselyne Fischer, a French citizen, and the couple enjoyed spending summers in France and visiting Japan. They also shared an interest in classical music and art.
Plans for a memorial service to be held at the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus are incomplete.
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Dr. Meyer is survived by two other sons, David Meyer of San Diego and Nick Meyer of Makanda, Ill.; two other daughters, Alison Meyer of New York City and Nadine Meyer of Gettysburg, Pa.; a sister, Eliane Norman of Maitland, Fla.; and nine grandchildren.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun