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About the SOA

2001 Deceased Member — Cecil J. Nesbitt

In Memory of Cecil J. Nesbitt

Cecil J. Nesbitt was born in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario in 1912. In 1922, his father (James K.), mother (Jemina J.), sister (Ina V.) and he moved to Edmonton, Alberta. While in Edmonton, he met his future wife, Ethel M. Winterburn.

After graduating from Victoria High School, Edmonton, in 1929, Nesbitt worked a year before proceeding to the University of Toronto where he rode out the Depression. He graduated with degrees in mathematics in 1934, 1935 and 1937 (Ph.D.). His doctoral thesis was written under Professor Richard Brauer, an outstanding mathematician and later Chair of Mathematics at Harvard.

Brauer nominated Nesbitt for membership in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for the 1937–38 academic year. At the end of that year, a teaching opportunity developed at the University of Michigan and Nesbitt began his long career here in the Department of Mathematics. At Michigan, Nesbitt married Ethel in 1938 and had two sons–Norman J. (1939–1957) and Bruce F. (1944–1949). Both sons died from Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that was little known at that time.

In earlier years, Nesbitt did research with Brauer, T. Nakayama and R. M. Thrall on algebra and representation theory (including 6 papers in the Annals of Mathematics), and is perhaps best remembered for the beautiful book "Rings with Minimum Condition" (1944), written jointly with E Artin and R M Thrall, describing the basic structure of what are now known as artinian rings. However, Nesbitt's bent had always been to the actuarial field and this showed up in the books "Mathematics of Compound Interest" (1971) with Marjorie Butcher and "Actuarial Mathematics" (1986) with Bowers, Gerber, Hickman and Jones. The latter text is considered the seminal publication in its field and is currently used worldwide in educating future actuaries.

Nesbitt was appointed Assistant Professor in 1941, Associate Professor in 1946 and Professor in 1952. He spent two terms as Chairman of the Department of Mathematics (1960–61 and 1970–71), and was Associate Chairman from 1962–67. He became Professor Emeritus in 1980. In 1988, Nesbitt was awarded the Distinguished Faculty Governance Award from SACUA.

Nesbitt became a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries in 1946, the same year he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was also a founding member of the American Academy of Actuaries in 1965. After completing a 4–year term as the Director of the Actuarial Education and Research Fund, he continued as the Fund's Research Director from 1980–1986. He was a Vice President of the Society of Actuaries from 1986 to 1987.

He spent time in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica developing pension plans for public employees. In Ann Arbor, Nesbitt served on the Retirement Pension Board for 18 years. During his time as advisor, the pension fund grew from $15 million to more than $182 million. He also developed and implemented significant changes in how city workers received their health benefits, settling a long dispute between city administrators and elected officials. Many local officials recognize that, because of Nesbitt's diligent work, the pensions they are receiving are secure.

For 43 active years, Cecil Nesbitt educated generations of actuarial students who went on to become leaders of industry and the actuarial profession. Several current CEOs of major insurance companies, as well as numerous retired chief executives, were among his students. Six of the most recent 10 Presidents of the Society of Actuaries have been Michigan actuarial graduates. This is no accident. Graduates of Michigan were guided by a strong faculty, led by Professor Nesbitt, into developing their intellectual capacity to their fullest. Even more importantly, he instilled a strong ethical foundation. From leadership positions, many graduates (following the example set by Nesbitt) made conscious decisions to devote their energies into the further development of the profession.

"There are men out there that say Nesbitt made the most difference in their lives" said Don Lewis, professor emeritus and former chairman of the Mathematics Department. "His students just worshipped him."

Throughout his career, Nesbitt was first, and foremost, a great teacher. "He was the most effective teacher. He could explain abstract concepts so that they were crystal clear. And, it was also obvious how important his students were to him," said Curtis E. Huntington, one of his students in the 1960s and now Professor of Mathematics and the Director of the Actuarial Program at the University.

After retiring from active teaching, Nesbitt continued exploring, mostly with undergraduate students, the theory of an n–year roll–forward reserve financing of large public retirement systems such as the Old–Age Survivors and Disability Insurance (Social Security) program. His most recent published papers have touched on many debatable questions such as adaptive financing and risk theory applications for annuities and insurance products. Nesbitt's hope was "these papers will contribute in the new millennium to a revitalized program at Michigan, and to a new grasp of actuarial science as a basic foundation for annuity and insurance provisions."

He also served for many years on the University's Committee on the Economic Status of the Faculty, doing so for several years after he retired. "In general, for Cecil, retirement did not lead to a slower pace of activity," reports professor emeritus Wilfred Kaplan, "and in recent years I often saw him at his desk in the Math Department."

In April 1991, the C. J. Nesbitt Room, a commons room for undergraduate concentrators in Mathematics funded by alumni/ae, was dedicated. At that dedication ceremony, Nesbitt provided a concise history of actuarial science here at the University. Started in 1903, Michigan was the first U.S. university to offer such a program. For 63 of these 98 years, Professor Nesbitt was an integral part of the program. Today, the Nesbitt Room is an integral part of the fabric of life in the Department of Mathematics in its new home in East Hall.

In 1992, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, a number of Michigan graduates met in Washington, DC and organized a "surprise" birthday party for Nesbitt. At that party, the start of a campaign to fund the "Cecil J. Nesbitt Chair in Actuarial Mathematics" in the Department of Mathematics was announced. With typical modesty, Nesbitt agreed to have his name associated with the Chair, but only if it were made clear that the Chair was meant to recognize all of the faculty who had contributed to the past successes of the program.

Nesbitt was a member of the First Presbyterian Church where he served on the Peace Task Force. Nesbitt was an active supporter of nuclear disarmament and peace efforts in his retirement years and was a member of the International Council for Peace and Justice and the Huron Valley United Nations Group.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, or to the Cecil J. Nesbitt Chair, University of Michigan Department of Mathematics, Ann Arbor, MI 48109–1109.