Obituary: William Galbraith / Computer engineer, adventurer, dancer, family man

Nov. 26, 1931- Jan. 7, 2012

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From diving among shipwrecks off the British coast in his youth, to questioning his doctors about his cancer treatments over the past seven years, William "Bill" Galbraith spent his life exploring the world around him.

An Oxford University-educated zoologist who for fun taught himself higher mathematics and computer science, and who sang baritone in light operas and musicals -- including at London's Royal Albert Hall -- Mr. Galbraith was always eager to learn new things and to push his personal limits, family members said.

That held true even for how long his doctors expected him to live. After his diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer in 2004, Mr. Galbraith was told he had about nine months to live, according to his wife, Diana Galbraith.

But he pushed himself past that deadline, and then another and another until finally the doctors stopped making predictions, she said. And all the while, he wanted to know absolutely everything that was happening. Mr. Galbraith died Saturday at age 80.

"Bill just went on and on and on and his brain was going to the last minute," Mrs. Galbraith said. "He wanted to know the ins and outs of everything."

Born in Sadra, India, outside Bombay on Nov. 26, 1931, Mr. Galbraith spent his early childhood in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, where his father, Ian Courtney Galbraith, was serving in the British diplomatic service, Mrs. Galbraith said. With no school to attend or children to play with nearby, Mr. Galbraith spent much of his time with his governess and with his older sister, she said.

When Mr. Galbraith was 7 years old, his parents died after their canoe capsized in a stretch of river rapids and his father's leg -- an aluminum prosthetic to replace the limb he lost during World War I -- became trapped between rocks. His mother, Mary Baker Galbraith, reached the riverbank but went back to rescue her husband, and both drowned.

Mr. Galbraith then was sent to boarding school in England, which is a tough place for a young boy to go, Mrs. Galbraith said. Especially if he tends to keep to himself.

"He was pretty much a loner there," she said. "He was an introspective boy and he really didn't make friends easily."

After finishing upper school, Mr. Galbraith attended Oxford University, where he rowed for New College until graduating in 1954 with a master of arts degree in zoology.

That was the year he met his wife-to-be at a friend's party. Everyone was playing a game in which each party guest had to find the other person holding a playing card that matched his or her own; Diana and Bill Galbraith each were holding the six of hearts when they found each other, and both said "snap!" when they met, according to British custom.

Later, everyone played another game called "sardines," in which players hide and seek -- but then squeeze in next to the "hider."

"So the first words we ever said to one another were 'snap' and our first kiss was under a bed, playing sardines," Diana Galbraith said, laughing.

Mr. Galbraith got a job doing cancer research for Chester Beatty Laboratory in Chelsea, and the couple married. He continued pursuing his hobby of diving to explore shipwrecks -- a World War II-era liberty ship with its cargo of American-made tanks still aboard was a favorite -- with the Chelsea Aqua Club. He and his wife also performed together in many light operas and musicals with the Chelsea Operatic Club.

After immigrating to the United States with his family in 1971, Mr. Galbraith worked for Denver University, where he built a computer. He then continued performing cancer research at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago for several years, before moving to Pittsburgh to work for Carnegie Mellon University. At CMU, he spent 15 years developing computer software that allows microscopes to read diagnostic medical tests such as Pap smears, Mrs. Galbraith said.

Meanwhile, family time was lively, filled with board games and stories and songs. Music-making figured prominently in the road trip vacations he took with his wife, their son David, and their daughters Fiona, Deirdre and Allison.

Her father had a keen and questioning mind that kept everyone around him on their toes, and a warm spirit that made spending time with him a pleasure, she said.

After moving to Pittsburgh, Mr. Galbraith and his wife joined the Pittsburgh Scottish Country Dancing Society, with which they danced and gave demonstrations all over Pittsburgh for years. And all the while he never stopped reading -- math books were a favorite entertainment -- or building things for his family.

Mr. Galbraith's creations, his wife said, are all over their home and the homes of their children: huge wooden Noah's Arks for their grandchildren, puzzles, ornaments, a bower over their front porch for wisteria, archways along the front walk for Mrs. Galbraith's roses.

"You name it, he made it -- he was always dreaming up something," she said. "You only had to say something and he'd build it."

A life celebration will be held at the family home in Point Breeze on Jan. 14 from 1 to 4 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Pittsburgh Scottish Country Dancing Society, c/o Lisa Klemmer, treasurer, at 1617 St. Andrews Court, Pittsburgh 15237.


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com .


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