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Who Earned First Computer Science Ph.D.?

Ralph L. London

January 15, 2013

Guest blogger Ralph L. London describes his efforts to provide a more accurate historical record of the first computer science Ph.D.s in the United States.

User Comments

 (10)

Well, I guess Dijkstra should be the first one who publish a PHD thesis in computer science.

3. Edsger W. Dijkstra. Communication with an Automatic Computer. PhD thesis,
University of Amsterdam, 1959.

Mario BĂ©land, acm member

Dijkstra was not mentioned because the article covered only Ph.D.s in the United States, as stated in paragraph 3 and the last paragraph. It is not clear, using the definition in paragraph 5, whether Dijkstra earned a Ph.D. in computer science and if he did, whether he was first.

--Ralph L. London

I believe Clarence Arthur Ellis was the first African American to receive a computer science PhD, from the University of Illinois in 1968 or 69.

As one of the earlier PhDs in CS (1971, Purdue) I recall those early 1960's fondly. The issue for those of us contemplating a CS PhD and deciding which school to go to was not only which universities offered the degree (very few) but which ones offered genuine CS courses. Most CS programs of that era were really EE programs or Math programs or Communication Science programs masquerading as Computer Science. At the time, it seemed that only the students knew what computer science really was, whereas the faculty all tended to think CS was a minor specialty within some other, more established discipline. The choice one had to make was whether to get a mathematician's view, an electrical engineer's view, or some other view. We all wanted to take courses like operating systems and compiler design, but were offered things like numerical analysis and formal language theory and circuit design (with vacuum tubes, no less!). [I recall when the students proposed a course in data bases and the faculty decried that as a topic with no academic substance.] Of course, hiring a genuine computer expert for the faculty was difficult for many schools because most computer experts were out in industry making computers happen and few of them had the doctorates and other qualifications required for acceptance in a tenure-track academic position. It all settled out in the 1970's and 1980's as those of us with CS PhDs began to proliferate - at least in most schools. But as late as the 1990's I recall visiting an undergraduate "CS" program where they thought every CS student needed to have a half dozen math courses (beyond Calculus), but had no courses in operating systems or data bases and the compiler course was deeply theoretical.

"Clarence Ellis is the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science (1969)."

Source: http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/computer-science/ellis_clarencea.html

--Ralph L. London

Any discussion of "Who Earned First Computer Science Ph.D.?" that omits early pioneers because of department-name terminology or country is regrettably narrow. Just for one example, consider David Wheeler's 1951 thesis "Automatic Computing With EDSAC" from the University of Cambridge - this is unquestionably Computer Science.

What the commenter finds regrettably narrow, some find useful and interesting. I encourage others to expand the search, which might mean going back to the 1930s or earlier.

--Ralph L. London

Who was the first to graduate with a Computer Science degree (B.A.) from the University of California, Berkeley?
I claim I, Bruce W. Bailey, did. Because I was the first in the Computer Science class of '69 but I graduated a quarter early.
I've always wondered whether someone beat me to it though.
I believe that Jim Gray was the first to graduate with a PhD in Computer Science from UCB. He was a TA for a couple of my classes, and I later worked with him at Tandem Computers.
May he rest in peace.

"(and assuming no other school had a pre-1966 department),"

Why would one need to assume this? A simple google search gives us the result that Purdue University established the nation's first computer science department in 1962 and the first class of post-graduate students (MS and PhD) entered that same year. The undergrad programme started in 1967.

This article, https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2544&context=cstech, presents Purdue's CS history and even names the two fellas who received its first PhD degrees.

BTW, it's kind of unusual a person would receive a PhD the same year one enrolled and at the same year the department opened. This is not to say things weren't done differently in the 1960s, but if you read the article about Purdue I linked to, you'll see one if the biggest obstacles then was the absence of CS-related textbooks, especially those appropriate for post graduate students.

My aim was to determine the first Computer Science Ph.D., not the first Computer Science department, although I noted that Purdue was the first department. The assumption (no other pre-1966 department) was mentioned because there was a remote possibility I could have missed a department that awarded a degree before June, 1965.

Concerning the last paragraph, some Ph.D. work might have been completed in another department or program before a Computer Science Department was founded. A department might also have been renamed.

--Ralph L. London