Egon Balas: 1922–2019

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Egon Balas: 1922–2019

INFORMS is saddened to learn of the passing of INFORMS Fellow and esteemed member of the Carnegie Mellon University faculty, Egon Balas, who overcame an early life in the shadow of the volatile political dynamic of World War II-era Romania to become a leader in the field of operations research.

“Egon Balas was a highly regarded member of both the INFORMS community as well as the Carnegie Mellon University faculty, and he made significant and lasting contributions to the field of operations research,” said Ramayya Krishnan, the 2019 president of INFORMS. “He was an inspiration not only for overcoming such incredible obstacles in his youth, but for his role in furthering the operations research profession.” 

Egon Balas was born as Egon Blatt in 1922 to a Hungarian Jewish family in Cluj, Romania. During World War II, a period of fascist rule in Romania, he was employed by an ironworks, and in 1942 he joined the Iron and Steelworkers' Union and the underground Hungarian Communist Party. It was during this time that he changed his name to Balas to conceal his Jewish heritage. In 1944, Balas was imprisoned and tortured for his anti-fascist activities, but escaped by the end of the year. Most of his family was killed in the war. 

After the war, Romania came under Communist Party rule, and Balas quickly rose within the Romanian Communist Party and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1949 he received a degree in economics from Bolyai University and lectured in the subject part-time. However, in 1952, amid shifting national politics, Balas was dismissed from his post and imprisoned for two years, during which time he was harshly interrogated. After his release in November 1954, he took up academic posts in economics, and became an expert in capitalist economic systems. After continued fluctuations in the political climate saw him once again dismissed from his post and from the Communist Party, Balas discovered, and was heavily influenced by the 1958 book Linear Programming and Economic Analysis by Robert Dorfman, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Solow. 

Balas obtained a post at the Design Institute for Forestry and the Timber Industry in Bucharest, where he collaborated with Ladislaw Ivănescu (later called Peter Hammer) to put his new-found knowledge on practical industrial applications of linear programming techniques to work. Confronted with a forest harvesting problem involving variables taking either the value 1 or 0 in nonlinear programs, he developed what he called the “additive algorithm,” which later became better known as implicit numeration. The results were ultimately published in the INFORMS journal Operations Research in 1965, which became the most frequently cited paper of the era. 

In 1966, Balas entered Ph.D. programs in economics and mathematics at the Universities of Brussels and Paris, and in 1967, he immigrated to the United States and took a position in the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he remained until his passing. 

Throughout his career, Balas continued to develop new methods in the field of integer programming, particularly disjunctive programming. Much of his theoretical work was derived from practical problems, predominantly those in the steel industry of the Pittsburgh area. In 1995, he was awarded the INFORMS John von Neumann Theory Prize. He was elected to the inaugural class of INFORMS Fellows in 2002, awarded the EURO Gold Medal in 2001 by the Association of European Operational Research Societies. In 2006, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the IFORS Operational Research Hall of Fame.

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