Kemeny, John G
Kemeny, John G.
Mathematician, Educator, and Philosopher
Devoting his career to mathematics and education, John G. Kemeny served as president of Dartmouth College for more than a decade. He also taught at the school for many years and is remembered for his books. Skilled in the field of mathematics, he teamed with fellow professor Thomas E. Kurtz to create the BASIC programming language.
Kemeny was born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 31, 1926. He and his family were Jewish and fled Hungary in 1940 to escape the Nazis. He immigrated to the United States and finished high school in New York City, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1945.
In 1943 Kemeny was admitted to Princeton University, where he majored in mathematics and minored in philosophy. His studies were interrupted when he joined the U.S. Army's Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico, but in 1947 he graduated from Princeton and began work on a doctorate in mathematics. During his work on the atom bomb project at Los Alamos, Kemeny worked with mathematician John von Neumann (1903–1957). At Princeton his colleagues included physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) and mathematician Alonzo Church (1903–1955). In 1949 at the age of twenty-three, Kemeny completed his doctorate and joined the faculty at Princeton. He taught in both the department of mathematics and the department of philosophy.
Kemeny took a professorship at Dartmouth College in 1953 and served as chairperson of the department of mathematics from 1954 to 1967. In 1964 he and fellow professor Thomas E. Kurtz created the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) programming language. BASIC was designed so that computer novices could quickly become proficient in the writing of computer programs. The BASIC language was adopted by high schools and colleges throughout the world. It is the language that many contemporary computer professionals credit with sparking their initial interest in computers.
Kemeny's Introduction to Finite Mathematics sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States and has been translated into several languages. He also wrote A Philosopher Looks at Science and Random Essays on Mathematics, Education and Computers and is the coauthor of nine other books on mathematics.
In 1970 Kemeny was named president of Dartmouth at the relatively young age of forty-three. His tenure as president was marked by a genuine concern for the teaching mission of the college as well as a clearly liberal political viewpoint.
Kemeny's presidency began during a period of student unrest across the United States, related to the treatment of minorities and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. When four students at Kent State were killed by National Guard troops during a protest of the war, Kemeny showed solidarity with the antiwar protestors by temporarily suspending all academic activities at Dartmouth.
Kemeny was president of Dartmouth when it first admitted women in 1972. As president he withstood criticism from alumni when he abandoned Dartmouth's Native American mascot, which he found offensive.
By 1981 Kemeny perceived a shift in the political winds. In his final commencement address as president, he warned the students against "a voice heard in many guises throughout history, which is the most dangerous voice you will ever hear. It appeals to the basest of instincts in all of us, it appeals to human prejudice. It tries to divide us by setting whites against blacks, by setting Christians against Jews, by setting men against women. And if it succeeds in dividing us from our fellow beings, it will impose its evil will upon a fragmented society."
Kemeny served as president of Dartmouth for eleven years before returning to the department of mathematics to continue teaching. The mathematician, educator, and philosopher died of a heart attack on December 26, 1992. He was survived by his wife, two children, and two grandchildren.
see also Decision Support Systems; Mathematics; Procedural Languages.
Michael J. McCarthy
Kemeny, Jean Alexander. It's Different at Dartmouth: A Memoir. Brattleboro, VT: S. Greene Press, 1979.
Kemeny, John G. Man and the Computer. New York: Scribner, 1972.