Robert Rosen

June 27, 1934 — December 30, 1998



























Rosen Requiem


Aloisius Louie






Robert Rosen, whom I will always remember as Killam Professor of Biomathematics at Dalhousie University, died on Wednesday, December 30, 1998 in Halifax, after a prolonged illness. He was 64 years old. He suffered a great deal in the last ten years, both from his health and from the rampant politics in academia. It was a cruel end for the most notable man in the history of mathematical biology. But this is not the place to go on with the negative. This is the place to celebrate Robert Rosen’s life. It is therefore appropriate to set down a few reminiscences on my mentor and friend.


My association with Robert Rosen began in 1979, when I came under his wing as his new graduate student at Dalhousie University. I had always been interested in mathematical biology; I did a double major in mathematics and biology as an undergraduate — a somewhat unusual combination at the time. I had discovered Robert Rosen’s work several years before, when I came across the three-volume set Foundations of Mathematical Biology that he edited for Academic Press, published in 1972-73. His essays on the epistemological aspects of biology at the cellular level were mind-openers for me. The resulting resonances determined my scientific path: mathematical biology in the Rosen mode was what I wanted to do! In short, I accepted the invitation he extended in his final chapter, Is There a Unified Mathematical Biology?, closing the three-volume series:

Mathematical biology is a relatively young subject. We hope that we have said enough in the course of the present chapter, and throughout these volumes, to convince the reader that, though much has already been done, by far the best parts of the subject lie ahead. Hopefully some readers will be motivated by what has been said here to participate in their development, and hopefully their contributions can be chronicled when the time comes to rewrite this text.


Robert Rosen came to Dalhousie University in 1975 as Killam Research Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, with a joint appointment in the Department of Mathematics. A graduate program in Biomathematics had been started by the two departments. The presence of Robert Rosen and the only explicit program in mathematical biology in Canada brought me to Dalhousie.

The creation of the Biomathematics program was largely the work of Dr. I. W. Richardson. Through his initiative, effort, and energy, he was able almost single-handedly to carve out, for a perhaps brief but precious time, one of the most innovative and fruitful programs for research and teaching in theoretical biology in the world.

The program was housed in a renovated Victorian House on Robie Street in Halifax. Since the exterior of the house was painted bright red, we referred to our quarters, our scientific home, affectionately as the "Red House".




I first met "Bob" in person in the Red House’s kitchen, where I would come to remember fondly as the place in which Bob and I and other colleagues engaged in many challenging discussions. He was just putting the kettle on the stove to boil water for a cup of coffee. An air of informality and accessibility was immediately established: this was "Bob", not "Professor Rosen". (The whistling kettle would later develop into the triggering signal of my Pavlovian reflex — it would come to mean "time to go to the kitchen to share with Bob thoughts of the day".)

My first impression of Bob was dominated by, alas, his pipe. I disliked smoking, and here my supervising professor was puffing away. "Lord, have mercy on me," I thought, "I wonder if an education in mathematical biology is worth inhaling all this smoke... Oh well, people say pipe smoke is not as bad as cigarette smoke."

Some time later, Bob told me that he took up smoking a pipe because it was simply the politically incorrect thing to do (and this was long before the phrase "political correctness" came into common usage). His own professor, Nicolas Rashevsky, had a proverbial abhorrence for smoking. Legend had it that Rashevsky had to be dissuaded from inserting a notice into the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics (a journal Rashevsky founded) that there was to be no smoking while reading that journal.

This idiosyncrasy that Bob deliberately cultivated had consequences. One was that it became easy to identify books that belonged to his reference library. His books were well thumbed — literally. Most of the pages had tobacco-stained fingerprints on them! Also, he typed out the first drafts of his manuscripts on his own IBM Selectric II typewriter. The keyboard was a sight to behold: one could easily scrape up enough gummy residues from it to make a good smoke (if one was so inclined). And I typed part of my doctoral dissertation on this same typewriter.


The Red House enjoyed its golden age from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Its rise and fall was not an isolated incident in the history of theoretical biology. Robert Rosen was involved with two others. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he was with the Committee on Mathematical Biology at the University of Chicago, under Nicolas Rashevsky; and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s he was with the Center for Theoretical Biology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, under James F. Danielli. Unfortunately, scientific excellence is almost always sabotaged by bureaucrats, and scientific brilliance is a magnet for jealousy.

When Robert Rosen first arrived at the Red House, he walked into "an ambience that almost compelled those who experienced it to think, study, learn, and write beyond the edge of the known." This was how he recounted it ten years later, after the downfall of the Red House. In 1985, Rosen, Richardson, and I collectively authored the book Theoretical Biology and Complexity: Three Essays on the Natural Philosophy of Complex Systems as a memorial to the Red House, as a specimen of the output of the Red House program, and as a symbol for what such programs could accomplish. "This last is important," Rosen wrote in the Preface, "for it is precisely the scientific strengths of such programs that also make them vulnerable, in constant threat of engulfment by the sands of the vast academic deserts which surround them."