In Memoriam: Robert H. Szczarba

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Robert H. Szczarba

Mathematician Robert H. Szczarba, a noted Yale professor for 40 years, died at age 78 on Oct. 18. He passed away peacefully at home surrounded by family and friends.

Szczarba joined the Yale Department of Mathematics in 1960. He was a leading figure in algebraic and differential topology, who developed pathbreaking work in his field. He co-authored numerous papers on such subjects as rational homotopy, group cohomology, K-theory and imbeddability. He co-authored the widely used text book “Calculus in Vector Spaces.”

His devotion to teaching is attested to by the large number of his former students, both here and abroad. In addition to his teaching and research, Szczarba served the mathematics department in numerous administrative roles: director of undergraduate studies, director of graduate studies, and department chair. From 1990 to 1995, he served the University as deputy provost for the physical sciences and engineering. In 1964 to 1965 and again in 1972, he was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He was named the Percy F. Smith Professor of Mathematics in 1984.

Szczarba was also an accomplished sculptor, welding his love of mathematics and art by creating sculpture with a mathematical flavor. He was commissioned to create several works, including “Three Pentagons,” which was presented to the Mathematical Association of America in Washington, D.C., for its 75th anniversary, and “Continents,” which graces the entrance to the Yale Center for International and Area Studies at Luce Hall on Hillhouse Avenue. Exhibitions featuring his work have been on display at The Creative Arts Workshop, the Yale Physicians Building, Whitney Center, and the New Haven Lawn Club.

While living in Bethany, Szczarba and his wife, Arlene, were active in that community for almost 20 years. Robert Szczarba served on the Town’s Finance Committee and was a coach in the Bethany Athletic Association. Moving to New Haven, they continued their support of the arts, working closely with the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, where Szczarba learned sculpting. The couple also started a Parkinson’s Dance Class at the Neighborhood Music School.

An avid athlete, Szczarba loved to play tennis and squash, and enjoyed playing with family and friends on his Bethany tennis court. A fan of baseball, golf, and tennis, he supported the professional tennis tournament in New Haven at Yale from its earliest days. His love of music, especially bluegrass and folk, led him to play the banjo and guitar. He was also a lover of film and the arts, and hours watching movies and visiting museums. One of his favorite areas to visit was Storm King Sculpture Park outside of Poughkeepsie, New York.

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, Szczarba earned a B.S. in physics from the University of Michigan and master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of Chicago.

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Arlene; his son, Gary, and his wife, Susan, of Wilmington, Delaware; his daughter, Cheryl, and her husband, Bart Connors, of New Haven; and his sister, Rosemarie Riley, of Plymouth, Michigan.

In lieu of flowers or other considerations, donations can be made to New Haven’s Creative Arts Workshop, Long Wharf Theater, or the Neighborhood Music School.

A memorial celebration will be held at a date and place to be determined in the spring of 2012.

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