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John George Kemeny (Hungarian: Kemény János György) (May 31, 1926, Budapest–December 26, 1992, New Hampshire), was a Hungarian-American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator best known for co-developing[1] the BASIC programming language in 1964 with Thomas Eugene Kurtz. He also served as the 13th President of Dartmouth College 1970–1981 and pioneered the use of computers in college education. Kemeny chaired the presidential commission that investigated the Three Mile Island accident in 1979[1].

Biography

Kemeny attended primary school in Budapest, Hungary. In 1940, his father took the Kemeny family to the United States to escape the imminent threat to Hungarian Jews posed by the rise of Nazism. His grandfather, however, refused to leave and perished in the Holocaust, along with an aunt and uncle.[2]. Kemeny's family settled in New York City where he attended George Washington High School. He graduated with the best results in his class three years later[1]. Kemeny entered Princeton University where he studied mathematics and philosophy, but he took a year off during his studies to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos National Laboratory. His boss there was Richard Feynman. He also worked there with John von Neumann. Returning to Princeton, Kemeny graduated with his B.A. in 1947, then worked for his doctorate under Alonzo Church. He worked as Einstein's mathematical assistant during graduate school. Kemeny was awarded his doctorate in 1949 for a dissertation entitled "Type-Theory vs. Set-Theory".

Kemeny was appointed to the Dartmouth Mathematics Department in 1953. Two years later he became chairman of the Department, and held this post until 1967. He was president of Dartmouth from 1970 to 1981, and continued to teach undergraduate courses and to do research and publish papers during his time as president. In 1982 he returned to teaching full time.

Kemeny and Kurtz pioneered the use of computers for "average people". After early experiments with the LGP-30, they invented the well-known BASIC programming language in 1964, as well as one of the world's first timesharing systems, the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS). In 1983, they cofounded a company called True Basic Inc. to market True BASIC, an updated version of the language.

Dartmouth Presidency
Posted with permission from Dartmouth College

If William Jewett Tucker can be said to have "refounded Dartmouth," then certainly it was John Kemeny who began the institution's "transformation." A Hungarian by birth, a Princetonian by education and an esteemed mathematician, his appointment was met with enthusiasm by the faculty but with skepticism by the alumni, some of whom felt that he could not understand the Dartmouth experience. Yet he succeeded in realizing the ambitious goals of his presidency while teaching two courses a year, and never missing a class.

Reversing a 203-year tradition of single sex education, John Kemeny presided over the coeducation of Dartmouth in 1972. He also instituted the "Dartmouth Plan" of year-round operations, thereby allowing a significant increase in the size of the student body without a corresponding increase in the College's physical facilities. During his administration, Dartmouth became more proactive in recruiting and retaining minority students[1] and revived its founding commitment to provide education for Native Americans. The co-inventor, with Thomas Kurtz, of the BASIC computer language, President Kemeny made Dartmouth a pioneer in student use of computers, equating computer literacy with reading literacy.

During what was, for most American colleges and universities, a tumultuous period of student protest, Dartmouth enjoyed a period of relative calm due in large part to John Kemeny's appeal to students and his practice of seeking consensus on vital college issues.

John Kemeny died at the age of 66, the result of heart failure in Lebanon, New Hampshire[1] in 1992. He had lived in Etna, near the Dartmouth campus.

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