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July 10, 2003

OBITUARY: Jan L. Sykora

Jan L. Sykora never failed to impress his colleagues, students and friends (the roles often overlapped) with his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and animals.

His fellow Pitt professor emeritus of environmental health, Julian Andelman, recalled: “If you were walking with Jan in the woods and you pointed to any plant at all, he could tell you all about it and what its name was in Latin, English and Czech.”

The Czech-born Sykora was a professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) for 31 years, specializing in aquatic biology, before retiring in 1999.

He died on June 25, 2003, at his Bethel Park home. “The cause of death is still unknown,” said his widow, Milena Sykora, “but he had suffered a series of strokes.” He was 71.

A memorial service for Sykora is scheduled for July 13 at 2 p.m. in the café of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

Born in 1932 in what was then Czechoslovakia, Sykora grew up in Ceske Budejovice (“Budweis” in German), where the original Budweiser beer was, and still is, brewed. Sykora would jokingly justify his love of beer by claiming that he came by his thirst naturally because of his hometown, said Andelman.

“Jan used to tell wonderful stories about how the Czechs coped with life first under the Nazis, and then the Communists,” Andelman recalled.

But Sykora left Czechoslovakia at the first opportunity. After earning a doctorate at Prague’s Charles University, Sykora worked at one of Germany’s Max Planck Institutes. Then, in 1967, he and his wife immigrated to the United States.

After working for a year in Cleveland, Sykora was recruited to Pitt by Maurice Shapiro, now an emeritus professor in GSPH.

Sykora taught aquatic biology here and did research on Legionella bacteria and the giardia lamblia parasite. Following a giardiasis outbreak in McKeesport during the 1980s, Sykora helped that city monitor its water treatment plant. During the 1970s, he did a major study of iron toxicity in brook trout. Sykora also studied the effects of acid drainage from mines on species diversity in western Pennsylvania. And, as a consultant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sykora studied diversity of organisms in the Ohio River.

But Sykora’s true research passion, Shapiro noted, was studying caddis flies, four-winged insects found near lakes and streams. “He did work all over the world on caddis flies and discovered a lot of new species,” said Shapiro.

“He was extremely knowledgeable about nature, but his real love was studying caddis flies,” Milena Sykora agreed. “He was an associate at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and he worked with people there and around the world” on research involving the insects.

In addition to his wife, Sykora is survived by daughters Caroline, of Pittsburgh, and Gabriella, of New York City, and a son, Jan, of Long Island.

A Jan Sykora Memorial Fund has been established through The Carnegie’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology. Memorial contributions in his name may be made to Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Development Office, 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.

— Bruce Steele

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