Copyright 1993 Guardian Newspapers Limited  
The Guardian (London)

January 4, 1993


LENGTH: 710 words

Obituary: John Kemeny



JOHN G. Kemeny, who has died aged 66, revolutionised computing and mathematics education at Dartmouth College and later, as president, also made sweeping social changes. Born in Budapest, Kemeny went to the US in 1940 and his undergraduate work at Princeton was interrupted while he worked on the Manhattan Project.

Kemeny's student years were times of exciting developments in mathematics, particularly in the areas of logic and computing. John took full advantage of his opportunity; he worked with his fellow Hungarians, John von Neumann and Leo Szilard at Los Alamos, wrote his Ph.D. thesis with Alonzo Church, and was a research assistant to Albert Einstein. He was on his way to a distinguished scholarly career at Princeton when instead he accepted the challenge of developing a new mathematics department at an Ivy League college which was certainly not known as a centre of excellence in mathematics. Kemeny came to Dartmouth aged 27 and was given freedom to develop a mathematics programme. Even at this age, he showed his abilities. His first book, The Philosopher Looks at Science (1959) was warmly received. Given a complex problem, be it mathematical, political, or social, John could come up with a simple, elegant and practical solution.

One of the first people to anticipate the central role that computing would come to play in our world, Kemeny insisted that some knowledge of computing was an integral part of a liberal education. To make the computer accessible to undergraduates, an unheard-of notion at the time, he and his colleague, Tom Kurtz, developed one of the world's first time-sharing systems. Typically, John shunned sceptical professionals and enlisted instead bright undergraduates who, like him, were naive enough to think the project feasible.

Just as von Neumann realised that a computer could have extraordinary power, Kemeny also realised that to make this power available to everyone, a programming language could and should be exceedingly simple. He and Kurtz developed BASIC, which is still one of the most widely-used computer languages.

Kemeny also applied his own philosophy to curriculum development. Not content with mathematics as "the only subject you can study for 14 years and not learn a single thing that has been done since 1800," he introduced a new freshman course, finite mathematics, which included logic, probability, and matrix algebra, to complement the standard calculus curriculum.

He also encouraged students interested in pursuing mathematics not simply to study the subject but actually to do mathematical research while still undergraduates. During all this activity, Kemeny maintained an active research programme. With me, he developed new theories for and applications of Markov chains.

In 1970 Dartmouth College faced increasing demands for a more diverse student body. The trustees chose Kemeny to tackle these problems. Once again his solutions bore his unmistakable stamp. He made co-education more palatable to conservative alumni by calendar reform, using the summer term to admit women without decreasing the male enrolment. At the same time, Kemeny revived a long-forgotten Dartmouth commitment by establishing a strong Native American programme.

Teaching remained his first love. The chairman of the Board of Trustees resisted his continued teaching as a condition for his acceptance of the presidency. Kemeny remarked: "You would have given me two afternoons off a week to play golf, if I had insisted. My hobby happens to be teaching; look at it that way." Throughout his presidency he rarely missed a class.

While at Princeton working in the World Federalist Movement, John was tempted to devote much of his time to it. Einstein told him that he should first make his mark in the world, for then people would listen to him. It was wise advice. Years later, Kemeny was appointed chairman of the Three Mile Island commission to investigate the nuclear power plant accident. He was horrified by the mess but he was a born optimist. He felt that for these problems, and in fact for all of society's major problems, we have the tools to find a solution and need only the will.

John George Kemeny, born May 31, 1926; died December 26, 1992.


LOAD-DATE: May 21, 1993