Chris Byrnes, former dean of engineering, dies at 60

Christopher I. Byrnes, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis from 1991 to 2006 and the Edward H. and Florence G. Skinner Professor Emeritus of Systems Science and Mathematics, died unexpectedly last week in Stockholm, Sweden. He was 60.

Byrnes, a resident of Ballwin, Mo., was a distinguished visiting professor in optimization and systems theory at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm at the time of his death.

“I was very saddened to learn of the passing of Christopher Byrnes,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “He was a noted scholar, research collaborator, and academic leader, and he will be missed by many people whose lives he touched.”

Byrnes joined the WUSTL faculty in 1989 as professor of systems and control and chair of the Department of Systems Science and Control. He became the eighth dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science on July 15, 1991, succeeding James M. McKelvey, Ph.D. He once described the deanship as “the best job in St. Louis.”

Under Byrnes’ leadership, the school’s endowment increased from $54 million to $185 million. Endowed professorships increased from nine to 37.

Two convictions guided him as dean: “The world is becoming more technologically advanced, not less and the world is becoming more global, not less.” With those doctrines in mind, he initiated a strategic planning process for the school to position it for a leadership position in the changing environment.

Recognizing the role the transistor and understanding of DNA would play in the future, the school chose four areas of emphasis: computers and communication; biomedical engineering; environmental engineering; and materials science and engineering.

Salvatore P. Sutera, Ph.D., the current interim dean, remembers how exciting it was to participate in this fundamental shift in the engineering curriculum. “Shortly after Chris became dean in 1991, he began leading the school’s faculty through intensive planning for the 21st century (Project 21). At that time I was well along in my conversion to biomedical engineering. “ (Sutera, who had served under Chris as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and founding chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering is now a senior professor of biomedical engineering.) “The designs of a new department and an interschool graduate program emerged and, in 1996, we founded the new Department of Biomedical Engineering, an approved BS curriculum, and the Institute of Biological and Medical Engineering. It was an exciting experience and, one that benefited the school tremendously.“

Byrnes’ field of scholarship was systems science and control. Among his research interests were feedback design in automatic control, nonlinear dynamics and control, and statistical estimation and filtering. His research found application in electrical power systems, signal processing and speech synthesis, among other areas. He held four U.S. patents and received more than $5 million in competitively awarded grants.

Raised in the Bronx during the ‘50s and ‘60s by a stay-at-home mom and city-bus-driver dad, Byrnes earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Manhattan College in 1971.

He saw his first computer as a freshman at Manhattan College. “It was as big as a house, and I wanted to see how it worked,“ he once said. While still an undergraduate, he worked briefly as an economic forecaster for the United Nations, troubleshooting lines of computer code. He turned down the offer of a permanent position, however, to continue his education.

Byrnes earned a master’s degree and a doctorate, also in mathematics, from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1973 and 1975, respectively. He began his academic career as an instructor of mathematics at the University of Utah in 1975.

Byrnes joined the Harvard University faculty in 1978 as an assistant professor and was promoted in 1983 to associate professor. He also taught at Arizona State University, where he founded the Center for Systems Engineering Research. At various times, he held visiting appointments at institutions in Europe, Japan and the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States.

Byrnes was awarded an honorary doctor of technology degree by Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology in 1998. He was an adjunct professor at the institute from 1986 to 1990 and a visiting professor in 1985, 1991, and 2001. In 2001, Byrnes was installed as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

A fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Byrnes won many best-paper awards, including the George Axelby Prize, which he received twice, and an award from the International Federation for Automatic Control.

In 2005 he received the W.T. and Idalia Reid Prize for excellence in the field of differential equations and control theory, and in 2008 he won the IEEE Hendrik W. Bode Lecture Prize for fundamental contributions to algebraic and geometric approaches to systems and control. He was the author or editor of several hundred technical articles and books.

Byrnes served on many civic, corporate and professional boards and worked to develop incubators and technology alliances in the St. Louis area. He chaired both the Center for Emerging Technologies, a nationally recognized nonprofit incubator for start up companies, and the Gateway Technology Alliance, an alliance of more than 250 biotech and information technology companies. He once said of St. Louis, “There is no reason St. Louis can’t be as well known for our technology as Singapore,” since the city and the nation have comparable populations.

While he was dean, 17 companies were formed to commercialize the ideas of the faculty and staff of the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Byrnes is survived by his wife Renee; his daughters Kathleen, now studying medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, La.; and Alison, a student at Duke University in Durham, N.C.; and a son, Christopher, Jr., who attends Chaminade High School in St. Louis.

“Chris made me laugh every single day,” Renee said.”He was the most wonderful conversationalist I’ve ever known, and he could talk to anyone at any level. I feel very honored to have been part of his life even for the short time we had.”

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.