Guardian Newspapers Limited
January 4, 1993
GUARDIAN FEATURES PAGE; Pg. 12
LENGTH: 710 words
HEADLINE: COMPUTING CRUNCHER;
Obituary: John Kemeny
BYLINE: J. LAURIE SNELL
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
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
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
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
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