Obituary: Allen Kent / A pioneer in field of information sciences

Oct. 24, 1921 - May 1, 2014


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In the 1940s, after World War II, Allen Kent tried to produce the artificial sweetener saccharin for a couple of lawyers who, knowing it was in short supply, thought they would make a killing.

Without a crucial ingredient, the name of which he didn't even know, the chemist spent months leafing through chemical engineering indexes to find one that satisfied the characteristics he sought. He did, but it ate through his lab equipment, and he spent several more weeks searching to find a material that could withstand the chemical.

"By the time I found the answer," Mr. Kent told attendees of the On-Line Revolution in Libraries convention in 1977, "the investor's money for my operation ran out."

That months-long pursuit informed his interest in the mechanics of searching technology -- and he went on to help develop early computerized information systems.

Founder of the University of Pittsburgh's information science department, pioneer in that emergent field and one-time adviser to the Kennedy administration, Mr. Kent died Thursday at his home in Scott. He was 92.

Born in New York City, Mr. Kent earned a degree in chemistry from the City College of New York and then served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

After the saccharin ordeal, Mr. Kent worked as a technical book manuscript editor and met a chemist who invited him to work on a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he helped to develop a system for encoding key words to help find bits of information, a forerunner to the Internet search engine, his daughter Emily Yeager said, reading from his memoir.

A 1959 article Mr. Kent wrote for Harper's magazine -- "A Machine That Does Research" -- was among the first pieces in the U.S. national press to explain how Americans' lives could be changed by electronic information technology, his family said.

In 1963, Mr. Kent founded the Knowledge Availability Systems Center at Pitt and the school's information sciences department seven years later. He also advised President John Kennedy on the creation of a national information storage and retrieval network. Before Pitt, he worked at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he established the first academic program in mechanized information retrieval, his family said.

"He wasn't the guy down in the lab tinkering with electronics. He was the guy that had the idea of what you should be tinkering with," said James G. Williams of Sunset Beach, N.C., his former student and, later, colleague at Pitt.

Mr. Williams said the man who twice lured him back to Pittsburgh when he was off pursuing other goals influenced his career and served as a mentor.

"He was my man. He was the guy that guided me the whole way through and gave me all kinds of opportunities," he said.

After his retirement in December 1991, Mr. Kent continued to contribute to reference material in his field. In 1996, he and his wife, Rosalind, moved to St. Pete Beach, Fla., before moving back to Pittsburgh to be closer to family in 2010. He stayed au courant with technology as he aged, even using an iPad and ordering his medications online.

In addition to his wife of 71 years, Mr. Kent is survived by daughters Merryl Samuels of North Fayette, Jacqueline Maryak of Augusta, Ga., and Emily Yeager and Carolyn Newcott, both of Lewes, Del.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Service and burial were held Friday at the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery.

Information on how to donate to the Allen Kent Scholarship Fund at Pitt can be found at 412-624-9473.


Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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