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Herbert S. Wilf: 1931-2012

Herb Wilf

Herb Wilf's Home Page

Herbert S. Wilf, an innovative mathematics researcher, teacher, writer, journal editor, and the University of Pennsylvania Thomas A. Scott Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, died on Saturday, January 7, 2012 in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. The cause of death was a progressive neuromuscular disease.

Wilf was the author of six books and more than 160 research articles. From the 1950's, he was a pioneer in the mathematical programming of early computers, beginning with his work at Nuclear Development Associates, which led to his book Mathematical Methods for Digital Computers, written with A. Ralston. From 1959 to 1962, he taught at the University of Illinois. His early work focused on numerical analysis and complex analysis, and led to numerous research papers as well as a textbook, Mathematics for the Physical Sciences.

Wilf taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1962 until his retirement in 2006. For him, teaching and research were deeply intertwined, and he was recognized throughout his career for exemplary teaching. In 1973 he received the University of Pennsylvania's Christian and Mary Lindback Award for excellence of undergraduate teaching. In 1996 he received the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for distinguished teaching of mathematics, from the Mathematical Association of America.

In the 1960's, Wilf became interested in the newly developing field of combinatorial analysis. He wrote fundamental research papers, forming the foundation of today's work in discrete mathematics with its applications to computer algorithms and its close interconnections with the mathematical fields of algebra and probability theory. He did pathbreaking work with D. Zeilberger of Rutgers University on a theory of computerized proofs for combinatorial identities. For this work they were awarded the Leroy P. Steele Prize of the American Mathematical Society for Seminal Contributions to Research in 1998. Overall, he contributed over 135 papers in combinatorics and wrote four influential books, including generatingfunctionology and A = B, the latter with M. Petkovsek and D. Zeilberger. In 2004 he was awarded the Euler Medal for Lifetime Contributions by the Institute for Combinatorics and its Applications. He supervised 26 Ph.D. students in combinatorics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wilf was a pioneer advocate of the open electronic publishing of books and journals. Many of his books are available for free download on his web page, which registered an astounding 350,000 downloads last year. Amazing. He co-founded two major journals, The Journal of Algorithms in 1980 with D. Knuth, and The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics in 1994 with N. Calkin. From 1987 to 1992 he also served as Editor-in-chief of The American Mathematical Monthly, a leading journal that aims for expository and readable dissemination of mathematical work for teachers and researchers. Wilf spoke widely at colleges, universities, and mathematics conferences throughout the world. He was an avid amateur pilot, and often flew himself to these occasions in his private plane.

Over his long career, Wilf co-authored research papers with more than 60 mathematicians. His final papers were as influential as his early ones, including "There's plenty of time for evolution" with W. Ewens, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. Wilf's wit shone through in some of his whimsical paper-titles, such as "The 'Snake Oil' method for proving combinatorial methods," and in his appreciation of articles written about his work such as B. Cipra's "How the Grinch stole mathematics."

Herbert Saul Wilf was born on June 13, 1931 in Philadelphia, the son of Alexander and Bertha Wilf. He received a B.S. in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Columbia University in 1958. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Ruth Tumen Wilf, a daughter Susan, two sons David and Peter, and six grandchildren.

Donations to establish an award recognizing outstanding student achievement may be sent to: Herbert S. Wilf Award Fund, Department of Mathematics, University of Pennsylvania, 209 South 33d Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6395.

Some comments on Herb Wilf's work

65th Birthday Tribute [1996]
AMS Steele Prize Article [1998]
A Tribute to Herb Wilf, By Doron Zeilberger on Herb's 80th Birthday [2011];
To be published in the Proceedings Volume of the W80 conference, edited by Ilias Kotsireas and Eugene Zima.