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In Memoriam Peter Wegner: 1932-2017

Brown University professor emeritus of computer science Peter Wegner.

Peter Wegner, professor emeritus of computer science at Brown University who made significant contributions to the theory of object-oriented programming and to the relevance of the Church-Turing thesis for empirical aspects of computer science, passed away on July 27 following a brief illness.

Born in St. Petersburg, Wegner and his parents lived in Vienna, Austria. He left in the late 1930s for London, where he graduated from Regent Street Polytechnic (a precursor of the University of Westminster), before going on to study mathematics at the Imperial College of London University (now Imperial College London). He later attended University of Cambridge, where he earned a post-graduate diploma in numerical analysis and automatic computing (there were no master's or doctoral programs in computer science at the time). In 1968, he was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of London for his book Programming Languages, Information Structures, and Machine Organization.

At Cambridge, Wegner worked with Maurice Wilkes on the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) computer, the first practical general-purpose stored-program electronic computer.

In 1954, He worked briefly in the computer science department of Manchester University, before visiting Israel for an academic year, where he was invited to work on the Weizmann Automatic Computer (WEIZAC), one of the world's first large-scale, stored-program, electronic computers, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

He returned to England in 1955 and was hired by the Prudential Insurance Company to develop actuarial software. IN 1956, he left Prudential for CAV Aerospace, where he worked on airline programming.  He soon left that position for Penn State University, where he spent two years before leaving to work with Fernando Corbató at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (Multics) project, working on the development of an early time-sharing operating system based around the concept of single-level memory.

In 1960, Wegner moved to the mathematical laboratory of Harvard University, helping faculty with their programming requirements.

In 1961, Wegner returned to England to take on a lectureship at the London School of Economics, lecturing economists on computing. He spent three years there before returning to the U.S. to take on the role of assistant professor in the mathematics department at Penn State.  While there, he invited Juris Hartmanis to lecture on computational complexity (Hartmanis, along with Richard E. Stearns, were awarded the 1993 ACM A.M. Turing Award for their work on computational complexity). In 1966, when Hartmanis was invited to found the computer science department at Cornell University, Wegner became one of the first members of that new department.

In 1969, Brown University offered Wegner a position with tenure, which he accepted. He spent the rest of his career at Brown.

Wegner was named a Fellow of the ACM in 1995, and recipient of the ACM Distinguished Service Award in 2000 "for many years of generous service to ACM and the computing community, including outstanding and inspiring leadership in publications and in charting research directions for computer science. " The citation for his reward said he "has been an initiating leader in ACM's educational and publication efforts while inspiring several generations of computer scientists." He served as co-editor-in-chief (with Marvin Israel) of ACM Computing Surveys and was a long-time member of the ACM Publications Board.

In 1999, Wegner was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, 1st class. When he went to London to receive the award, he was hit by a bus, resulting in serious brain injuries and a lengthy coma. As noted in the documentary film "Peter Wegner is Alive and Well and Living in Providence," his doctors at the time gave him a 5% chance of surviving, and another 5% chance of having restored brain function; he overcame those odds through lengthy rehabilitation that required him to relearn how to walk, read, and write, and eventually returned to work.

In March 2017, Wegner received a recognition award celebrating his sustained and dedicated work as editor of the Brown University Faculty Bulletin, which began in 1988. The honor followed praise from 1974 ACM A.M. Turing Award laureate Donald Knuth, who credited Wegner with a suggestion that eventually led to the invention of attributed grammars.

Wegner wrote or edited more than a dozen books on programming languages and software engineering. His most recent, "Interactive Computation: the New Paradigm," co-edited with Dina Goldin and Scott A. Smolka, was published in 2008.

Computer scientist Gio Wiederhold, who recalls writing two papers with Wegner  (one with Stefano Ceri), said that Wegner "published an early textbook which covered the entire scope of computer science. It provided an important entry when teaching the topic was typically a single course in some other department."

Wiederhold said Wegner's wife of 60 years Judith (whom he described as a scholar and practitioner of religious law) "supported him energetically to enable his return to work" after his bus accident. "His recovery would not have happened without her." She passed away on Feb. 2, 2017.

Conduit, the computer science magazine published by Brown University, published two parts of a biography of Wegner in the past year. They may be seen at (pp. 18-19) and (pp. 40-43).

--Lawrence M. Fisher


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