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Izaak Wirszup, 1915 – 2008

Jan. 31, 2008

Izaak Wirszup, a University of Chicago professor who played a key role in alerting the nation to the importance of improving mathematics education, died Wednesday in his Chicago home. He was 93.

Wirszup, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics at the University, spent a lifetime working on projects that would improve mathematics education and remained engaged in the work until the end of his life. A Holocaust survivor, Wirszup was known by his many friends for his charitable spirit.            

“Izaak Wirszup was a most inspiring example of courage in enduring and overcoming the terrible challenges of his life,” said Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago. “Rather than responding by bitterness, he chose to dedicate his life to loving his family and friends, and turning his tremendous creative energy toward wonderful contributions to the improvement of mathematics education in America, and to the betterment of this University.”

Wirszup was instrumental in calling public attention to the vast gaps between American and Soviet expectations for mathematics achievement among schoolchildren. In 1979, as director of the Survey of Recent East European Mathematical Literature, he sent a report to the National Science Foundation comparing the low expectations of mathematics curricula in the United States with the higher demands of Soviet science and mathematics education. The report reached President Carter, whose administration initiated a re-evaluation of the adequacy of American schools as a result.

In 1983, he helped establish the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, with $8 million in funding from the Amoco Foundation, in order to improve American mathematics instruction.

That project has grown to become the nation’s largest university-based curriculum project for kindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics. An estimated 3.5 to 4 million students in elementary and secondary schools — in every state and virtually every major urban area — now use UCSMP materials.

For his work as a co-founder of UCSMP, Wirszup received the Lifetime Achievement Medal for Leadership, Teaching and Service in Mathematics Education from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1996.

In presenting the award, Jack Price, president of NCTM, said, “We need only look at Izaak, at his determination, commitment and unfaltering belief that ‘you can do it’ to see a successful teacher who has made a difference.”

UCSMP was cited in April 2007 as an example of success that can result from an effective philanthropic initiative. The Council on Foundations honored the BP Foundation, successor to the Amoco Foundation, with a Critical Impact Award for its support of UCSMP. Through an ambitious effort to improve the instruction of mathematics among American school children, UCSMP has proved its effectiveness in improving the performance of students across the country, in both urban and suburban schools, the council said in making its recognition.

In 1998, he helped organize a three-year program for Chicago public high school teachers to use texts from Russia and Singapore to improve their teaching. With funding from the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation of Chicago, the program helped teachers learn how to better explain mathematical concepts.

Beginning in 1999, he worked with Fefferman, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics, on the Summer Institute for the Development of Mathematics Teachers in Chicago, funded by the Polk Brothers Foundation. Through the program, middle school teachers learned to improve their teaching of mathematics using a creative, modern approach to teaching.

Wirszup was also involved in other projects, including one the Department of Mathematics at the University and the CNA insurance company launched in 2003 to show Chicago Public School teachers how to better work with their K-8 students. The program concentrated on finding ways to intervene early to improve instruction. It is also encouraged students to look at multiple ways of solving mathematics problems.

Jerry Becker, Professor in Curriculum and Instruction, Southern Illinois University, who taught in the summer institute, said, “As a professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, Prof. Wirszup was an outstanding contributor to the national and international mathematics education communities. He was also an important mentor to me as I developed as a mathematics educator.”

Many alumni remember Wiszsup and his wife, Pera, when they were Resident Masters of the dormitory Woodward Court. They served in the position from 1971 to 1985 and started a lecture series to help advance closer social relations between faculty and students. In 1986, one of Wirszup’s former students endowed the Wirszup Lectures.

At Woodward Court as well as in their home, the Wirszups were famous for their hospitality. Friends and colleagues remembered Wirszup for his generous spirit and eagerness to help others. In an interview with the University of Chicago alumni magazine, Wirszup said he was inspired by his experiences as a Holocaust survivor to make a contribution to society.

“When I remained alive, the sole survivor of a very large family, I had to confirm in my own conscience, and before the memory of all my dear ones, that I was doing something valuable, something truly good and doing it to the best of my abilities, with a life that had been spared me completely by chance.”

He spent nearly two years in concentration camps during World War II and credited the kindness of French resistance fighters with whom he had been imprisoned in Germany for an ability to learn to show kindness to others.

After the war, he returned to Wilno (present-day Vilnius), the city where he had grown up, which was then part of Poland and since has become the capital of Lithuania. He had been a member of a prosperous family that was part of the cultural and intellectual life of the city and was an outstanding student at the University of Wilno, where he received a Magister of Philosophy in Mathematics degree in 1939. He became a lecturer in Mathematics at the State Technical Institute there.

Upon his return home, he discovered his wife and young son — as well and the rest of his family — had perished. He also met the woman who was to become his new wife, Pera, who had survived with her young daughter, Marina.

The family moved to France at the invitation of one of his friends from the concentration camp, the owner of the French department store Galleries Lafayette. Wirszup and his family settled in a chateau outside Paris while he worked as the store’s Director of Research.

In 1949, however, Wirszup received a message from his former professor at Wilno, Antoni Zygmund, encouraging him to come to Chicago. Zygmund had left Poland at the start of the war and eventually joined the mathematics faculty at the University of Chicago.

He joined the Chicago faculty as an Instructor in Mathematics in 1949 and was named Professor in Mathematics in 1965. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University in 1955.

He received the Quantrell Award, the University’s highest honor for teaching undergraduates, in 1958.

Services will be 11 a.m. Monday in the KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. 

Besides his wife, Wirszup is survived by his daughter, Marina Tatar; granddaughters, Carolyn Tatar, Dr. Audrey Tatar, and Lauren Tatar; and six great-grandsons.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to to the Professor Izaak Wirszup Memorial Fund, University of Chicago Department of Mathematics, c/o Angela Bowen, 5747 S. Ellis Ave., Suite 122, Chicago, IL 60637. Phone: (773) 702-3751.

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Last modified at 09:23 PM CST on Tuesday, August 02, 2011

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