May 25, 2016

Obituary: Paul Herzberg, 1936–2015

paul herzberg

Professor Paul A. Herzberg, a long-time faculty member in the Psychology Department at York University in Toronto, died on December 2, 2015 at age 79. Paul joined York University in 1966 and retired from the Department of Psychology in 2002. He was named a senior scholar at the University. Paul’s papers are housed in the Archives at the Scott Library at York University.

Paul was born on September 23rd, 1936 the son of Luise and Gerhard Herzberg, both of whom were refugees from Nazi Germany. His parents were distinguished scientists. His father, Gerhard Herzberg, a physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1971, for his contributions to the field of atomic and molecular spectroscopy. His mother, Luise, was an astrophysicist whose work gained considerable recognition in the 1960’s. His parents were forever grateful to Canada for welcoming them in 1935 and to the University of Saskatchewan for offering Gerhard a permanent professorship in 1936. Gerhard went on to positions at the University of Chicago and then became the Director of the Division of Pure Physics, at the National Research Council of Canada.

Paul was a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and was a celebrated teacher of statistics, receiving several significant teaching awards for his teaching innovations. Paul developed and employed novel instructional methods for statistics and authored a statistics textbook, Principles of Statistics (Herzberg, 1983), which reflected his pedagogical philosophy. For twenty-five years, he taught statistics to undergraduate psychology majors at York University and developed an intensive program of individualized instruction. He taught over 3,000 students using his approach. Each year in his courses, he employed a select group of upper-level undergraduates as teaching assistants, over 300 in total. Many of these students went on to successful careers in psychology as academics in Canada and the United States. At a memorial held for Paul in February 2016, many spoke movingly about Paul’s impact on them and their careers.

After his retirement from teaching at York, Paul remained physically and intellectually active. He continued his life-long commitment to fitness and swimming and took course to learn German. In one of his most important achievements, Paul wrote and published in 2010 a biography of his mother titled, Luise Herzberg Astrophysicist: A Memoir, in which he detailed her many scientific accomplishments and the challenges she faced as a woman in science and as the wife of a famous scientist. While his father’s achievements had been detailed by others, Paul believed that his mother’s many scientific achievements had been understated and that it was up to him to tell her story. After coming to Canada and spending years devoting herself to her children and her husband’s career, Luise obtained a permanent position at the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, Canada, and went on to work on data obtained from Canada’s first satellite, the Alouette. She also worked at the Radio Physics Laboratory in Ottawa. One reviewer noted that Paul’s biography “provides a unique look at a Jewish immigrant woman scientist, very much in the shadow of her famous husband, struggling to break loose from oppression of one kind or another” (Broughton, 2010). In 2007 Paul mounted a celebration of her life at the Preservation House Gallery in Toronto.

During his retirement, Paul also assembled a book of his wife Louise’s poetry and botanical drawings, published in 2015. His wife Louise predeceased him by just a few months. At the time of his death, Paul had just completed a biography of C. J. Mackenzie, a significant figure in the development of science in Canada and a former President of the National Research Council of Canada. It will be published posthumously.

Paul is survived by his stepmother, Monika Herzberg, and by his sister, Agnes Herzberg, a statistician who spent her early career in the Department of Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and more recently in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, where she is currently Professor Emeritus.

Written by Doug McCann, Department of Psychology, York University, and Agnes Herzberg, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON.

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