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Vera Watson

Mike Blasgen: Thank you, Don.

Vera Watson. I met Vera Watson when I moved to Yorktown to go to work in the Research Division in New York. One of the other people in the group I was in was Vera Watson. Vera has a very unusual background. She was born in China of Russian parents. That was part of a Russian community that occupied a portion of China. Yul Brynner also has the same background, in case you care. So she spoke Russian and came through England to the United States, I would guess in the late fifties, was hired into IBM Research because of her Russian language skills. That is when the optimism was running high about automatic translation of languages - this was text-to-text translation between languages. There was a big research project to do that. It was expected that it was just a matter of a few more months and this would be routine. It didn't turn out that way. But they needed the special skills of somebody who was fluent in Russian, so Vera was brought in. She eventually became part of several different groups in Yorktown; became a programmer, contributing in programming to several different projects that I also was involved in (graphics projects and other things). She moved to California in probably the beginning of 1974 or the end of 1973, about the time that several other people moved from New York to San Jose, and I moved out soon after and joined her and worked with her in the same department under Traiger.

Vera had an interest outside of work, which was mountain climbing. She was a very serious mountain climber, a member of the Alpine Club in New York City. She was a very serious climber - rock climber, mountain climber. In 1975 or 1976 she took off three or four months from work and went to South America and did a solo ascent of Aconcagua, which is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. I remember Frances King wrote a poem about Vera's ascent of Aconcagua. Then the following year, which would have been about 1977, she had a special opportunity to join an all-women's assault on Annapurna. Annapurna's one of the major Himalayan mountains. Many of us were involved in that and had fond memories of Vera going off to do that. One of the unusual things about that I remember is that, at the time to get a leave without pay, in this case for the three months or four months that was required to do an assault on a major Himalayan peak, you had to claim to IBM this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which it surely was, except the trip to Aconcagua was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So she had two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities within two years of each other.

So she joined the group to climb Annapurna, and was part of the second team to attempt the summit. You go up in pairs, so you do pairwise summit attempts - these Himalayan style things where you do base camps. So she was working her way to the upper camp as the first summit team was coming down between the topmost and the second topmost. They passed, and then she was lost - she and her partner were lost. We're quite sure they fell. They were roped together; we think one fell and took the other with them.

I learned of this from a phone call from John McCarthy. Vera had married John McCarthy, the father of Lisp and of artificial intelligence. John called my office to tell me that he had just learned of this mess. I remember going in to a meeting of the department. I even remember the conference room in Building 28 where we met. I told this story roughly like this that Vera was lost. They did send up others to try to find her. They were able to see the bodies in the snow way below but it was not considered safe to descend, and even if you could descend to the bodies, there was no way to bring the bodies back out without bringing in helicopters and things like that, which were not considered justified. So there's a memorial at the base camp at Annapurna today to Vera, among others who've died on that assault; it's a serious mountain.

And so I think it's nice that we can all remember Vera. Vera contributed a lot to this project. If you look at this piece of paper here, it says VM+[3]. That plus sign is Vera. She did the work to modify an IBM operating system to make it suited for running the multi-user version of System R. So, we all remember Vera.

Now I'll turn it back to Don for Morton Astrahan.

[3] J.N. Gray and V. Watson. A Shared Segment and Inter-Process Communication Facility for VM/370. IBM Research Report RJ1579. San Jose, California (May 1975).

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