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Robert Wells Ritchie ’57

July 15, 2019, in Palo Alto, California, from complications from Parkinson’s.

Originally from Alameda, California, Robert earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Reed, where he wrote his thesis, “Conditions for the Power-Associativity of Algebras,” with Prof. John Leadley [mathematics 1956–93] advising. After marrying, he went to Princeton, where he earned his PhD in three years. Bob joined the faculty at Dartmouth in 1960. Two years later, he returned west to Seattle and joined the faculty at the University of Washington, first as a professor of mathematics. He helped found the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington (which ultimately became the Paul G. Allen School).

One of seven full-time faculty comprising the early department, Bob helped establish its reputation for excellence in theoretical computer science research and teaching. He became the second permanent department chair, and during his six-year term led the department to national prominence, earning  it a place among the top 10 programs in the country.

Bob was an early pioneer in the creation of what is now called computational complexity: the theory of the time and storage needed to solve computational problems. He was among the first to examine classically defined computations from mathematical logic and show that they are equivalent to modern complexity classes defined in terms of time and storage, calling them “predictably computable functions.”

He departed UW to embark on a second career in industry, first with a position in the research division at Xerox and then as Hewlett-Packard’s first director of university affairs, leading HP’s worldwide interaction with universities. After retiring, he volunteered time to the National Science Foundation and was involved in university accreditation.

Bob is survived by Audrey, his wife of 62 years; his daughter, Lynne Gustafson; and his son, Scott.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2020

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