What We Know So Far

In January 1968, Dennis sent out two copies of his nearly finished dissertation…

The two versions are identical except that DMR handwritten edits are slightly different between them.  The content is all there, about 50 minor edits still needed over 30 pages.  This appears to be a final check for Dennis before he submits the thesis and defends.   

The Fischer copy is notable because of the date written on the cover page in pencil… “January 1968”.  The Fischer copy is also notable because Dennis lists the names of his four thesis advisors, in pencil, on the cover page also.  They are… 

  • (Anthony) Oettinger
  • (Sheila) Greibach
  • (Hilary) Putnam
  • (Manuel) Blum
CLICK HERE if you want to learn more about this distinguished panel.
Thesis Advisors
Fischer Copy Cover Notes

After Dennis died, in 2012 sister Lynn tracked down Sheila Greibach and Anthony Oettinger, they each wrote to her with their thoughts.

While these distinguished professors served on Dennis’ advisory committee, it’s not clear how active they were.  Dennis’ original advisor was Patrick Fischer, he left Harvard in 1965 to take a tenured Computer Science Professorship at Cornell.  

As Dennis described it in an interview with Michael Sean Mahoney, when MSM asked him who his advisor was, Dennis replied, “Pat Fischer… Pat was sort of not really the Harvard advisor. I was fairly independent.”

Led by sister Lynn, we siblings found a third copy of the dmr thesis.  It had a charred cover page and didn’t look like much, we didn’t appreciate it until David Brock from the Computer History Museum identified it in the dmr papers and posted it at the end of his Long Lost Dissertation post.

 

Close inspection reveals this to be a near perfect final draft (shaded by later discolorations), all corrections from the Meyer/Fischer version have been perfected and only six minor final edits listed on the cover page.  

This thesis version, which we believe was completed in February 1968, was all dressed up and ready to go.

So what happened?

On February 7, 1968, Bell Labs wrote to Harvard asking them to confirm that dmr would receive his doctorate in February of that same month and year.  On February 20, 1968, Harvard wrote back to say that they would not (see below).  That’s the last that anyone has ever heard about the topic until after Dennis died.

 

Bell Labs Second Inquiry Feb 7, 1968
Bell Labs Inquiry
Harvard Reply
Harvard Reply

And one last thing… it may be not related but at this point who knows?

In his book, UNIX – A History and a Memoir, Brian Kernighan tells the story of his own experience with Bell Labs and PhDs.  Describing his hiring process, Kernighan says:

“I never had an interview the Labs sent me an offer sometime in the fall, though with a caveat my thesis had to be finished. Sam Morgan, the director of the Center and thus my boss two levels up, told me, “We don’t hire PhD dropouts.”

Wonder why he said that?