Robert MacPherson was born in born Lakewood, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1970. His thesis, written under the direction of Raoul Bott, was titled Singularities of Maps and Characteristic Classes.
His first Ph.D. student, Mark Goresky, eventually became his life partner - a rare arrangement in math (but not so rare as either gays or mathematicians would think) is spite of being both married.
"Goresky and MacPherson" has become practically a single mathematical entity, much like "Rogers and Hammerstein" or "Ben and Jerry." In the early 1990s, MacPherson spearheaded a unique relief mission, raising more than $100,000 to keep Russian mathematics afloat - and smuggling a significant part of that money into Russia himself. They are best known for the invention of intersection homology.
Asked to compare their story with Brokeback Mountain, MacPherson and Goresky give intriguingly different answers. "I guess the similarity is that both of us were highly resistant to the idea that we were gay, and we didn't know any other gay people," says MacPherson. "We were inventing our own world - that's the parallel I would make with Brokeback Mountain."
For Goresky, the movie portrayed a fate narrowly averted. "I found the story quite moving," he says. "Time and again, Ennis makes plans for them to move in together, but it never happens. Then Ennis dies, and Jack ends up living an empty life of memories and regrets. This was almost our story. I came very close to staying in Vancouver."
Robert and his life partner Mark now reside in Princeton, N.J., where MacPherson is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study.