Andrew (Andy) Vazsonyi: 1916-2003

By Saul I. Gass

Dr. Andrew Vazsonyi, a founder of The Institute of Management Sciences and pioneer in the application of OR/MS in industry and business, died Nov. 13, 2003 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Andy, to all who knew him, was a mathematician by training and inclination. But, his curiosity, inquisitiveness and mental abilities made him a concerned scientist with broad interests. His contributions helped shape OR/MS as we know it today.
Andy was the second of three sons born in Budapest to Hermine and Miska Weiszfeld. Miska was a businessman who owned and managed one of the finest handcrafted shoe stores in Budapest. He inherited the store from his father, the most successful shoe manufacturer in Budapest. Early in life, Andy demonstrated an ability to solve intricate math problems. When he was 14, his father arranged for him to meet the 17-year-old math prodigy, Paul Erdös. After exchanging proofs for the Pythagorean theorem, (Andy knew one, Erdös knew 37) they became life-long friends. Andy attended the Pázmány Péter University in Budapest and received his Ph.D. in 1936.

In the 1930s, because of rising fascism and government restrictions against Jews, many Hungarian Jews changed their names. Thus, in 1937, Andy changed his name from Weiszfeld to Vazsonyi, after his cousin, the noted politician and founder of the democratic party, Janos Vazsonyi. (The cousin had earlier changed his name from Weiszfeld.) This brings us to the first Andy tale.

Famous Problem

When Andy was 16, his interest in geometry brought him to the famous problem first posed by Pierre de Fermat in 1643: given n points, find a point such that the sum of its distances to the n points is a minimum (a generalization of Fermat's original 3-point problem). From an OR/MS perspective, the problem is now interpreted as a facility location problem, but to Andy it was just an interesting math problem. Andy's paper on his algorithmic solution method was written in French and published in a Japanese journal: "Sur le point pour lequel les sommes des distances de n points donné et minimum," Tôhoku Mathematical Journal, Vol. 34, 355-386, 1937.

The paper describes the now famous and classic Endre Weiszfeld algorithm. When I asked Andy why the paper was written in French and published in an obscure math journal, he answered: "I cannot recall why I sent the location paper to the Tôhoku Journal. I must have had some indication that they would accept it. French was selected because I had a friend who was available and had good French knowledge. (Hungarian was obviously useless.)"

At the time of its publication, there was little interest in the Weiszfeld algorithm. Things changed in the 1960s when facility location became a hot OR topic. The paper kept being "rediscovered" by many researchers who did not know who Weiszfeld really was. This always bothered Andy. As he wrote in his autobiography, "Which Door has the Cadillac: Adventures of a Real-Life Mathematician": "To my great chagrin, nobody knows that Weiszfeld is around and kicking, or that Vazsonyi = Weiszfeld."

I was pleased when Andy sent me a copy of the book with the dedication: "To my dear friend and colleague of many years, the only management scientist who is aware of my early math work like the Weiszfeld algorithm." The Fermat Problem is often called the Weber Problem or the Steiner Problem, but neither Weber nor Steiner contributed much to its solution. It is time to change the name of the general problem to the Vazsonyi (aka Weiszfeld) Problem.

Escape from Hungary

In 1938, with the support of a Hungarian mathematician, Andy was offered a fellowship at the University of Cincinnati. How he escaped from Hungary, and eventually arrived in the United States two years later is a very convoluted story that deals with passports, visas, bureaucracies, a long stay in Paris, and Andy's chutzpah. You have to read Andy's autobiography to see how the new emigrant kept afloat in New York City (the University of Cincinnati fellowship was long gone), how he received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Harvard, met and married his wife, Laura, and became a U.S. citizen in 1945.

Although always a mathematician, Andy started his industrial work in 1945 as an engineer, and later as a manager, working for apump manufacturing company in Pennsylvania. Then he was off to California with North American Aviation (where he corrected a serious design problem in the P-51 fighter aircraft), the U.S. Navy Guided Missile Division, Hughes Aircraft, Roe Alderson (a marketing firm), Ramo-Wooldridge, and back to North American Aviation (1958). At Hughes, he became interested in computers and such new concepts as information management. It was then that he first heard of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) and started to attend its meetings. Andy became a bit disillusioned with ORSA; to his mind, the members at that time were far removed from the business world. This caused him to be a prime mover, along with Bill Cooper and Mel Salveson, in the founding of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS). At TIMS' inaugural meeting, Cooper was elected president, and, because the constitution required one, Andy was elected to be the first past president, the only past-president who never served as president! He was proud of that honor. Andy was a founding member and Fellow of the Decision Sciences Institute and served on its Council.

Andy joined academia in 1970. He took a three-year appointment as an untenured professor with the University of California School of Management. Besides teaching statistics, he was responsible for installing the School's first large-scale digital computer. The installation was successful, but Andy's teaching evaluations and strained relationships with the faculty (he was one of the highest paid professors in the School) added up to a no vote on tenure. He then accepted a position with the University of Rochester's Graduate School of Business. He later became a chaired professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, staying there until he retired in 1987. (He did continue teaching at the University of San Francisco with the title professor emeritus.) When he retired, Andy awarded himself a "McAndrew Grant" so he could "... become an activist who could extend math and the scientific method to all areas of ordinary life; at the same time, I wanted to fight against the nonsense of alchemists, witches, astrologers and others."

Multiple Identities

Besides having the twin identities of Vazsonyi and Weiszfeld, Andy is also identified with the Italian mathematician Z. Gozinto. In a lecture at the RAND Corporation in 1956, Andy was explaining a complex problem of production control. There were assemblies and subassemblies, each requiring parts to arrive on schedule. One of his diagrams, the Gozinto Diagram, illustrated how one part "goes into" another. After the talk, George Dantzig said he never heard of the mathematician Gozinto and wondered what university he was at. Andy thought he was kidding and replied, "You've never heard of the celebrated Italian mathematician Z. Gozinto?" Dantzig wondered what Gozinto's first name was. Andy realized he was serious and was stumped as what to reply. Later, in recounting his encounter with Dantzig to Abe Charnes and Bill Cooper, Cooper suggested the first name, Zepartzatt. From then on, Zepartzatt Gozinto took on a life of his own. Rumor has it that Gozinto perished in an earthquake in the Chilean Andes, but many of us know that he lives on.

Andy authored more than 70 technical papers and seven textbooks, the first of which was an early OR/MS text, "Scientific Programming in Business and Industry," John Wiley & Sons, 1958. His most recent textbook was "Operations Analysis Using Excel" (joint with Nancy C. Weida and Ronny Richardson), Thomson Learning, 2000. Comparing the scope of these two books shows how far OR/MS has progressed and how Andy made sure he kept up with the times.

His book, "Which Door has the Cadillac: Adventures of a Real-Life Mathematician," Writer's Club Press, 2002, is an autobiographical account of both Andy's life and his passionate love of mathematics. Andy's autobiography is a must read, and his Web site,, a must see for all who are interested in how a concerned member of our profession, citizen of the world and real-world mathematician contributed greatly to the advancement of human endeavors.

A personal note. Although I was friend of Andy's for many years, we became close only in the past few years due to our joint interest in improving the status of OR/MS in business schools and in higher education in general. Andy had a column, "The Specialist with the Universal Mind," in Decision Line, the newsletter of the Decision Sciences Institute. Five times a year, Andy would expound on his views and concerns, often accompanied by his on-target funny drawings.

I would read the columns, agree or disagree with his comments, and, by a steady flow of e-mails, augmented by telephone conversations, resolve and improve upon the discussions. Our last go-around dealt with the latest AACSB curriculum statement that (re)included management science as something that should be in business school curricula. How to make that happen?

Andy e-mailed: "I look at the new AACSB Standards as an indication that they may be willing to buy management science stuff. ... Our current strategy is not good enough. ... We need more 'real-life math;' math phobia is still rampant!"

Making it happen would certainly serve as a most fitting testimonial to the vision and memory of Andy Vazsonyi.

A former president of the Operations Research Society of America, Saul I. Gass is professor emeritus at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.