February 21, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 10

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    Beloved educator Wirszup improved mathematics skills

    Izaak Wirszup, a University professor who played a key role in alerting the nation to the importance of improving mathematics education, died Wednesday, Jan. 30, in his Chicago home. He was 93.

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

    “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. “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 curriculums 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 1998, Wirszup 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 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. Through the program, middle-school teachers learned to use a creative, modern approach to teaching mathematics.

    Many Chicago alumni remember Wirszup and his wife, Pera, when they were Resident Masters of the former Woodward Court residence hall. They served in those roles 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 Izaak for his generous spirit and eagerness to help others. In an interview with the 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 his own lessons in kindness to others.

    After the war, he returned to Wilno, 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 as the rest of his family — had perished. He also met the woman who would become his new wife, Pera, who had survived with her young daughter, Marina.

    The family moved to France at the invitation of a friend, who hired Wirszup to work as Director of Research at his department store, Galleries Lafayette.

    But, in 1949, Wirszup’s former professor at Wilno, Antoni Zygmund, encouraged him to come to Chicago, where Zygmund was teaching mathematics. Wirszup 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.

    In 1958, Wirszup received one of the University’s highest teaching honors, a Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    In addition to his wife, Pera, Wirszup is survived by his daughter, Marina Tatar; granddaughters, Carolyn Tatar, Audrey Tatar and Lauren Tatar; and six great-grandsons.