POUGHKEEPSIE, NY — Winifred Asprey, computer pioneer and professor at Vassar College, passed away peacefully at her Town of Poughkeepsie home on October 19, 2007. She was 90.
Asprey was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on April 8, 1917, and was the daughter of the late Gladys Brown Asprey, Vassar class of 1905, and Peter Asprey Jr.
Asprey, or "Tim" as she preferred to be called, taught mathematics and computer science at Vassar for 38 years before her retirement in 1982. Under her leadership, Vassar College became one of the first liberal arts colleges in the United States to establish a computer center and to offer courses in computer science (1963) and the second college in the country to acquire an IBM System/360 computer (1967).
Asprey earned her undergraduate degree from Vassar in 1938. After teaching at several private schools in New York City and Chicago, she went on to earn MS and PhD degrees in mathematics from the University of Iowa in 1942 and 1945, respectively.
As an undergraduate and as a professor at Vassar, Asprey formed a strong relationship with Grace Hopper, known as the "First Lady of Computing." Hopper taught mathematics while Asprey was an undergraduate, and Asprey eventually moved into the house that Hopper and her husband built at Vassar.
When Asprey returned to Vassar as a professor, Hopper had moved to Philadelphia to work on the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) project there. Asprey became interested in computing because it was a young field in mathematics, and at the time presented a great opportunity for women to advance in the field. Asprey visited Hopper in Philadelphia and learned about the foundations of computer architecture, as we know them today.
"One can predict with certainty that an awareness of the kinds of things computers do – perhaps even direct contact with computers – will soon be regarded as an essential part of a liberal arts education," Asprey wrote back in 1967. "Familiarity with a computer will be as commonplace a demand as familiarity with a foreign language presently is."
Asprey created the first Computer Science Department at Vassar, securing funds for the college's first computer, the IBM System/360. For the next decade, buoyed by her students' enthusiasm, Asprey devoted her full time and attention to the computer. She spent a year at the IBM research center as part of IBM's first Post-Doctoral Industrial Research Fellowship to study computers, read everything she could, attended professional conferences, and used her sabbatical and summers to study computer architecture.
Asprey made connections with the top researchers at IBM and other research centers, and constantly – and with characteristic good humor – lobbied the Vassar faculty and administrators to advance computer science. The computer center she created was renamed the Asprey Advanced Computation Laboratory in 1989.
An active member of the community, Asprey taught scientifically talented high school students, served as a math and computer science consultant for local high school faculty, and worked with the New York State Education Department on mathematics and computer assisted instruction. In 1985, Asprey was awarded an honorary degree by Marist College.
She was a member of the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Statistical Association, and the Association for Computing Machinery.
Asprey is survived by her brother, Robert B. Asprey of Sarasota, Florida. She is also survived by several nieces and nephews, who are the children of her deceased brother Larned Asprey.
Details regarding a memorial service will be announced at a later date.
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