Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
IsNew No
Tribute Author
Membership Directory

Search this Publication

  • JOHN ZABORSZKY (1914-2008)



    JOHN ZABORSZKY, senior professor of electrical and systems engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, passed away suddenly at the age of 93 on Feb. 1, 2008. 

    John Zaborszky was born on May 13, 1914, in Budapest, Hungary, when it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. John’s ancestors received a grant in 1263 from the king of Hungary, which included a village, named Zábor, and a coat of arms. The family name derives from Zábor, then located in northern Hungary, now in Slovakia, one of the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. John’s father, Nándor Záborszky, studied law and, following family tradition, entered public service upon completion of his studies. In 1926 he was elected mayor of the town of Budafok. He died there in 1952 after serving two terms as mayor. His memory was honored by Budafok a few years ago with a plaque dedicated on the main square of the town. John’s ashes will be placed in the family mausoleum in Budafok.

    Six weeks after John’s birth, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo, and World War I broke out. At the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed along with the German, Russian, and Ottoman empires. A peace treaty was enforced on Hungary when John was 6 years old.

    John received an excellent education in Hungary, which had an exceptional school system, as evidenced by the number of leading scientists produced by it, such as Paul Erdos (NAS 1980), Edward Teller (NAS 1948), Leo Szilard (NAS 1961), John von Neumann (NAS 1937), Gabor Szego, and John Kemeny. The performing arts, fine arts, literature, and music were flourishing in Budapest. The names of Bartók and Kodály associated with that period are well known around the world. John received a Diploma in Engineering in 1937 and a DS.c. degree, with special honors, in 1943, both from the Royal Hungarian Technological University in Budapest.

    John was chief engineer with the Budapest Municipal Power System as well as a docent at the Technological University before he emigrated from Hungary to the United States in 1947. Upon arrival in the United States, he was appointed an assistant professor at the University of Missouri at Rolla, Missouri. In 1954, he joined the School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis as a professor.

    In 1974 at the age of 60, John Zaborszky founded the Department of Systems Science and Mathematics (SSM) at Washington University and became chair of the department, a position he held until 1989. Under John’s leadership, the department developed an international reputation in systems and control. In 1990, the department created in his honor the Annual Zaborszky Distinguished Lecture Series, under the aegis of which a distinguished scholar presented a series of three lectures in his field of expertise at Washington University. In 2003, the department merged with the Department of Electrical Engineering and formed the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering. John was active as a senior professor until his death.

    John’s research focused on power systems and their dynamics, and he published two books and over 200 technical papers. He conducted many projects about power electric systems under the sponsorship of the NSF and DOE. He was a member of a panel in 1965 at the National Academy of Sciences that gave advice and recommendations after the Northeast Power Blackout. John supervised numerous Ph.D. students. Professor Marija Ilic (NAE 2021) of Carnegie Mellon University (now at MIT) wrote, “Many of us never would have become what we are today without his vision and the special SSM at Washington University. Much of my work at Carnegie Mellon University today is carrying on the vision started by Dr. Z and attempting to teach the next generation.” Professor Mani Venkatasubramanian of Washington State University wrote, “I was blessed and very fortunate to have Dr. Zaborszky as one of my Ph.D. advisors at Washington University. Dr. Z was a kind and gentle person with great vision for power system stability and control. I have fond memories of so many intense and stimulating discussions with Dr. Z. He was such a dedicated researcher with amazing energy for his age.” John was also actively involved with industry. He was a consultant to McDonnell Douglas, Emerson Electric, Westinghouse, Hi-Voltage Equipment, and the NIH.

    In 1963, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) and the Institute of Radio Engineers merged into the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). John was instrumental in the merger of the Professional Group on Automatic Control of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the Feedback Systems Committee of AIEE, as well as in the formation of the Control Systems Society as one of the first three IEEE societies. He was president of the IEEE Control Systems Society in 1970. He served as a member of the IEEE Board of Directors and director of Division I from 1974 to 1975. From 1980 to 1981, he was president of the American Automatic Control Council, an umbrella organization in the domain of automatic control whose members include the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the IEEE, the Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society, and the Society for Computer Simulation.

    John was elected a fellow of the IEEE (AIEE at the time) in 1956 and a distinguished member of the IEEE Control Systems Society in 1983. He received the Centennial Medal from the IEEE in 1984 and the Richard E. Bellman Control Heritage Award from the American Automatic Control Council in 1986 for “distinguished career contributions to the theory or application of automatic control.” He was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

    John loved classical music and enjoyed the St. Louis Symphony. He also took pleasure in cultivating rare plants in his greenhouse. Dr. Ilic recalled, “At the time when I came to Washington University to study under him, he had a beautiful garden and would point out which part of the world he brought each plant from. He loved plants, his garden, and his woods. But, as with everything else in his life, the garden really was not an ordinary garden. It was the world in microcosm.”

    John is survived by his wife Kiyoko. Washington University held a memorial service on Feb. 11, 2008.

    John will be dearly missed by his family, many friends, and colleagues all over the world. His legacy will live on in the people whose lives he influenced in fundamental ways. Many of us would never have become what we are today without his vision. The world garden still blooms; the classical music still reunites us all.

    1Portions of this tribute are reproduced with permission from Mukai H, Tarn TJ. 2008. Obituary: John Zaborszky. IEEE Control Systems Magazine 28(3):106-7.