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Gio Wiederhold, expert in databases and intellectual property, has died at 86

Born in Italy, raised in wartime Germany, and an émigré to the US in his twenties, Wiederhold first made a name in the fast-growing field of computer science in the 1960s and ’70s.
Gio Weiderhold, 1936-2022 | Photo by Hector Garcia-Molina

Giovanni “Gio” Wiederhold, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University and a noted expert in databases, the valuation of intellectual property, and computer history, died of cancer on Dec. 26, 2022, surrounded by family at his San Francisco home. He was 86.

In the postwar years, Wiederhold served as a technical assistant and self-described “human computer” for NATO’s SHAPE Air Defense Technical Center in the Netherlands. He emigrated to the United States in 1958 and worked as a mathematician at IBM prior to joining the University of California, Berkeley, as chief programmer in the early 1960s, just as computer science was blossoming. In 1965, Wiederhold was named director of the Advanced Computer for Medical Research (ACME) project at the Stanford School of Medicine, where he developed one of the earliest online, real-time, time-shared systems for monitoring and collecting data from medical research instruments.

ACME accelerated research at the medical school, most notably that of Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, a renowned geneticist and microbiologist, whom Wiederhold counted as his most influential mentor. In a 2001 interview, Wiederhold called ACME his proudest professional achievement.

“Creating a system both friendly and sufficiently powerful to be useful to medical researchers was the challenge,” Wiederhold wrote in his unpublished memoir, “Moving On.” Among its novel attributes, ACME allowed researchers to dial-in using early acoustic modems and to acquire data directly from equipment fitted with primitive analog outputs.

“No one, other than possibly Defense-related work, was doing this,” said Edward Feigenbaum, a Stanford professor emeritus, who knew Wiederhold from Berkeley and who lured his friend to Stanford. “ACME had to pay attention in real time to lots of medical experiments all around the medical school. That was really tricky to do and Gio and his talented team did it. It was a beautiful system and a showcase in its day for the possibilities of computer applications.”

Pioneering work in databases

In 1976, holding the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree and on the eve of his 40th birthday, Wiederhold earned his doctorate in medical information science at the University of California, San Francisco. He immediately joined the faculty at Stanford in computer science as an assistant professor, the first to focus on data- and knowledge bases. He held courtesy appointments in medicine and electrical engineering, as well. In 1977, according to his autobiography, Wiederhold taught the first regular database course offered at Stanford.

“Gio joined the faculty at Stanford the year before I arrived and helped foster collegial relations among a cluster of new assistant professors hired in the late 1970s,” remembered longtime friend and colleague, and former Stanford President, John Hennessy. “Whether organizing lunch outings to a local Chinese restaurant or hosting events at his house in the redwoods of Kings Mountain, Gio helped form bonds of friendship that would last for decades. Gio was one of the first multidisciplinary researchers in computer science, forming active collaborations with the School of Medicine.”

Making up for lost time

Despite his relatively late start in academia, Wiederhold enjoyed a prolific career. He authored or co-authored more than 400 peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, presentations, and reports on computing and medicine, and penned no fewer than 10 books. His foundational textbook, Database Design, was first published in 1977. Later, working in what he called Knowledge-Based Management Systems (KBMS), Wiederhold helped integrate knowledge-oriented technologies with artificial intelligence to provide intelligent access to databases.

Wiederhold excelled as an advisor, as well. He guided 36 PhD students and assisted more than 50 other theses in subsequent decades. His first PhD student, the late Hector Garcia-Molina, would return to Stanford in 1992 to lead the database group and served as chair of the Department of Computer Science from 2001 to 2004.

“He was a beloved PhD advisor,” Hennessy said. “He was known for being a wise and insightful counselor to graduate students.”

“Gio was an exceptionally kind person, and I still remember how he and his wife, Voy, treated us like extended family,” recalled one of those advisees, Marianne Winslett, now a professor at the University of Illinois. “The most dramatic moment I remember during my time as his student was when a huge storm sent a redwood tree through the roof of Gio’s Skyline Drive house during his Friday afternoon database seminar. We all piled into cars and drove up the mountain through the storm to patch the roof in the dark and clean up what we could of the damage.”

Professional honors for Wiederhold included election as a Fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics (ACMI), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, Galway. From 1991 to 1994, he served as program manager of knowledge-based systems at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Wiederhold retired from full-time academic service in 2001, but continued to work, teach, mentor, and write. In later years, his focus became valuing intellectual property. His final book, Valuing Intellectual Capital: Multinationals and Taxhavens, was published in 2013.

Peripatetic early days

Giovanni Corrado Melchiore Wiederhold was born on June 24, 1936, in Varese, Italy. His childhood was spent in Germany. Wiederhold would later recall sheltering under a willow as artillery fire sailed overhead during the Battle of Frankfurt in 1945. His parents divorced when the war ended and, at 13, Wiederhold moved with his mother to the Netherlands. He studied aeronautical engineering at TMS Technicum in Rotterdam and did graduate work at Delft University of Technology.

He met Voy, his wife of 56 years, while at Berkeley. They married July 30, 1966. The two collaborated on ACME: He designed software and she taught physicians and researchers how to use the system. Wiederhold was remembered as a devoted husband and father to the couple’s two sons, for his love of do-it-yourself tinkering, especially on his beloved 1953 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, and for his passions for genealogy, travel, music, and the arts.

Gio Wiederhold is survived by his wife; his sons, John and Randy, and their spouses, May and Christine; and his four grandchildren, Evan, Anni, Eli, and Zoë. The family is planning a private service, but wishes to sincerely thank all family, friends, colleagues, students, and staff for the joy and satisfaction given Gio, in work and in play, throughout the years. Tributes and memories from friends and colleagues are encouraged.

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