February 8, 2008

Wirszup, visionary professor, dead at 93

Izaak Wirszup, professor emeritus in mathematics at the University, died January 30 at the age of 93. Family members, former students, President Robert Zimmer, and University faculty members remembered his strength, innovation, and compassion at a memorial service Monday at the KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park.

During his years as a math professor at the University, Wirszup worked tirelessly to improve the quality of mathematics education.

Zimmer called Wirszup a “titan of personal strength” for enduring the tragedies of the Holocaust with grace—he spent two years in a concentration camp and survived both his wife and son—and for his lifelong contributions to education.

Wirszup was a catalyst for improving mathematics and science education in the United States and in 1958 won the Quantrell award for excellence in undergraduate teaching in the College.

He also directed the 1979 Survey of Recent East European Mathematical Literature, which eventually provoked the Carter administration to reevaluate American schools’ curricula, according to a University press release.

As an advocate for education reform, Wirszup testified before Congress in an effort to narrow the gap between American and Soviet mathematics education standards.

Andrew Patner, a former student of Wirszup’s, who also served as editor-in-chief of the CHICAGO MAROON in 1979, said that the MAROON covered Wirszup’s congressional testimony, beating even The New York Times to the story.

“I got one of my first scoops as a journalist from Izaak,” he said on Monday.

At the University of Chicago, Wirszup established the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project in 1983, using an

$8 -million grant from the Amoco Foundation. According to the University, this project is the nation’s largest curriculum program for kindergarten through 12th grade mathematics.

Robert Fefferman, dean of the Physical Dciences Division, knew Wirszup as a colleague in the mathematics department and worked with him on mathematics outreach in Chicago Public Schools.

Fefferman said that Wirszup’s career as an academic did not prevent Wirszup from playing an active role as a University community member.

From 1971 to 1985, Wirszup and his wife, Pera, served as resident masters of the Woodward Court dormitory, Fefferman recalled. They created the Woodward Court lecture series, which allowed students to interact with famous thinkers.

“I remember John Hope Franklin, the famous professor and historian [and] Subramahnyan Chandrasekhar, a Nobel laureate in Physics and faculty [member] at the U of C for 60 years,” Fefferman said. “These were historical events, more than lectures. The whole campus united over these things.”

Kate Bensen, a former resident of Woodward Court and long time friend of the Wirszups, reminisced about the “countless hours [she spent] in their apartment preparing for the lectures and receptions.”

She recalled talks by astronomer Carl Sagan and writer Eudora Welty. But for Bensen, the time she spent talking with the Wirszups after the lectures is most memorable.

The lecture series will be reinstated through an endowment from a former student of Wirszup’s.

Rabbi Arnold Wolf reflected on Wirszup’s unconventional spiritual approach to others.

“Izaak was not a pious man, for he missed some 20,000 services,” he joked. “But he was a holy man because of his love for others. His strength came from beyond the Holocaust. Izaak means joy and laughter.”