World-renowned University of Texas at Austin computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra dies

AUSTIN, Texas—Dr. Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, Schlumberger Centennial Chair Emeritus in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and a noted pioneer of the science and industry of computing, died after a long struggle with cancer on Aug. 6 at his home in Nuenen, the Netherlands.

Dijkstra was renowned for three principal contributions to computing:

  • The insight that mathematical logic is and must be the basis for sensible computer program construction
  • The idea of building operating systems as explicitly synchronized sequential processes
  • The intellectual foundations for the disciplined control of nondeterminacy.

Dijkstra was known for his wit and eloquence, such as his remark, “I mean, if 10 years from now, when you are doing something quick and dirty, you suddenly visualize that I am looking over your shoulders and say to yourself, ‘Dijkstra would not have liked this,’ well that would be enough immortality for me."

Dijkstra also is well known for his shortest path algorithm and for having designed and coded the first Algol 60 compiler, which is one of the earliest compiler programs.

Dijkstra said of his shortest path algorithm: "This was the first graph problem I ever posed myself and solved. The amazing thing was that I didn't publish it. It was not amazing at the time. At the time, algorithms were hardly considered a scientific topic."

Dijkstra was a leader in the abolition of the GOTO statement from programming. He enriched the language of computing with many concepts and phrases, such as synchronization, deadly embrace, dining philosophers, structured programming, weakest precondition, guarded command, the excluded miracle and the famous “semaphores” for controlling computer processes. The Oxford English Dictionary cites his use of the words “vector” and “stack” in a computing context.

Dijkstra was born in 1930 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the son of a chemist father and a mathematician mother. He was graduated from the Gymnasium Erasmianum in Rotterdam and earned degrees in mathematics and theoretical physics from the University of Leyden and a Ph. D. in computing science from the University of Amsterdam.

He worked as a programmer at the Mathematisch Centrum, Amsterdam, 1952-62, was professor of mathematics, Eindhoven University of Technology, 1962-1984, and was the Burroughs Corporation research fellow 1973-1984. Dijkstra held the Schlumberger Centennial Chair in Computing Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, 1984-1999, and retired as professor emeritus in 1999.

He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Maria (Ria) C. Debets Dijkstra, by three children, Marcus, Femke and the computer scientist Rutger M. Dijkstra, and by two grandchildren.

Dijkstra was the recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery's Turing Award, often thought of as the Nobel Prize for computing, in 1972. He was a member of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.

In 1974 he received the Harry Goode Award of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies. In 1982 he was awarded the Computer Pioneer Award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In 1989 Dijkstra received the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education given by the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education of the Association for Computing Machinery.

In July 2002, at the Principles of Distributed Computing Conference, Dijkstra received the Influential Paper Award for introducing the theory of system stabilization.

He received an honorary doctor’s degree from Athens University of Economics in 2001. In 2002, the CandC Foundation of Japan recognized Dijkstra “for his pioneering contributions to the establishment of the scientific basis for computer software through creative research in basic software theory, algorithm theory, structured programming and semaphores.”

A symposium in Dijkstra's honor was held in May 2000 and included speeches by many prominent computer scientists, including the Turing Award winners Professor Sir Antony Hoare, Professor Donald Knuth and Professor Niklaus Wirth. In conjunction with this symposium, Dijkstra's entire collection of more than 1,300 written works was scanned. These works are available online: In Pursuit of Simplicity: The Manuscripts of Edsger W. Dijkstra.

For more information contact: Don Hale, 512-471-3151.