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Wilbur Knorr, professor of philosophy and classics, dies at 51

Wilbur Richard Knorr, a leading scholar in the field of ancient mathematics, died of melanoma, a form of skin cancer, on March 18 at the Palo Alto Nursing Center. He was 51 and lived in Palo Alto.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, March 31, at 4 p.m. in Memorial Church.

Knorr came to Stanford in 1979 as an assistant professor in the History of Science program, which he helped to develop. He was promoted to tenure in 1983, holding a joint appointment as an associate professor in the departments of philosophy and classics, and was named a full professor in 1990.

"Wilbur was simply one of the world's most distinguished historians of ancient mathematics," said Patrick Suppes, philosophy professor emeritus at Stanford. "He learned Arabic as a way to get additional information about Greek mathematics. . . . That's just one example that illustrates how dedicated he was to the field."

Knorr's research over the past several decades was in the study of exact sciences, with special emphasis on the development of classical Greek mathematics and its medieval and modern traditions.

He was fascinated, for example, by the "creative" phases of classical geometry, which took place over a relatively short time frame, from about 400 to 200 B.C.

"The kind of mathematical insights those earlier geometers had are stunning," he was quoted as saying in a newspaper article describing his research interests. "They were able to accomplish things with a limited technical background, without the powerful mathematical techniques one has today. What they accomplished is similar to building a cathedral without steel."

In his teaching and in numerous publications, Knorr espoused a comparative approach to the study of ancient Greek mathematics. Some of the areas he explored were Greek and earlier Egyptian approaches to problem-solving; pre-Euclidean geometry and its relation to early Greek philosophy; and ancient and medieval traditions of mechanics and optics.

Henry Mendell, professor of philosophy at California State University-Los Angeles and a former graduate student of Knorr's, said about his mentor: "He was wonderful, patient and extremely quick. I would get piles of notes from him whenever I handed something in."

By treating the history of early Greek mathematics as autonomous from the history of philosophy, Knorr brought about an interpretation of its development "that was philosophically much more profound that anything that had been proposed before," Mendell said.

The traditional approach had been to see mathematics as developing out of philosophical schools and philosophical puzzles. Knorr's belief was that the ancient mathematicians were guided by mathematical concerns.

"He reversed the traditional belief that philosophers told mathematicians what to do," Mendell said. "Wilbur's view was that the mathematicians told philosophers what they were doing, and the philosophers said 'oh wow, that's what you should be doing."

Knorr was born in Richmond Hill, N.Y., on Aug. 29, 1945. He received his undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University.

He is survived by his mother, Dorothy Knorr, of Queensbury, N.Y.; his sister, Valerie Maione, of Columbia, Md.; her husband, Michael Maione, and their children, Elizabeth and Alexander

"He so loved my children," Valerie Maione said. "He even dedicated one of his books to them and included a picture of him with the two kids on the book's jacket."

Knorr also enjoyed running, bicycling, weight lifting, gardening and music.

Family members ask that in lieu of flowers, contributions be sent to Stanford University, Harvard University, the American Cancer Society or a charity of one's choice.


By Marisa Cigarroa