Controversial Ted Sterling saw potential of computers

February 10, 2005, vol. 32, no. 3

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Theodor (Ted) Sterling, emeritus professor and founding chair of Simon Fraser University's computing science program was no stranger to controversy.

But, throughout his academic career he met those who challenged his conclusions with arguments based solidly on research data. Sterling died of pneumonia Jan. 26 in Vancouver. For the past 10 years he had battled the effects of Parkinson's disease.

Seeing the potential of computers for academic research, Sterling was among the first in the fields of epidemiology and risk analysis to use the new technology in analyses of massive public heath databases.

As a pioneer in the field of computer applications he was also aware of the potential threats computing technology would soon pose to individual privacy and was among the first to warn the public of these impending dangers.

In 1940, his family fled to the United States, leaving their home in Vienna, and escaping the Nazi menace. Ted was 17 years old. "We were completely impoverished," he recalled in a 1974 SFU Comment interview.

"I worked at anything I could find," including driving a truck and service in the U.S. army. At the end of the World War II he returned to school, finishing grades 9 to 12 in a year. By 1955 he had two degrees from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Tulane. Academic appointments at Alabama, Michigan and Cincinnati followed. He joined SFU in 1972.

In addition to many fellowships and awards from various professional societies, Ted also received an honorary doctor of science degree from SFU in 2001. After his retirement, Ted and his wife, Nora endowed a unique award given annually by SFU, the Nora and Ted Sterling prize in support of controversy. The $5000 award recognizes individuals who have taken principled public stands on controversial issues of social importance.

SFU colleague and friend Barry Beyerstein, who chairs the Sterling prize committee says, "The Sterling prize itself is the perfect metaphor to describe Ted's remarkable life. It honours those who combine intellectual clarity and innovation, steadfastness and courage in the face of opposition."

A memorial gathering at SFU, celebrating the life of Sterling, is being planned. For information phone 604-291-5100.

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