Donald Knuth Biography

Donald Knuth is an American computer scientist and mathematician, best known for his book, ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. He is currently serving as the professor emeritus at Stanford University. Despite initially showing little interest in mathematics, Knuth demonstrated a unique knack for problem-solving and a passion for music. Excelling in his studies, he entered Case Institute of Technology with a physics scholarship, where he developed a strong interest in mathematics and computer science. Graduating with a simultaneous B.A. and M.A. degree, Knuth went on to pursue his doctoral degree at Caltech. It was during this time that he was asked to write a book on computer programming language compilers, a task he eagerly undertook. Throughout his career, Knuth has received numerous awards and honorary doctorate degrees for his contributions to computer science.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Donald Ervin Knuth
  • Age: 85 Years, 85 Year Old Males
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Jill Knuth, Nancy Jill Carter
    • Father: Ervin Henry Knuth
    • Mother: Louise Marie Bohning Knuth
  • Born Country: United States
  • Educators
  • Mathematicians
  • U.S. State: Wisconsin
  • Ancestry: German American
  • Notable Alumni: Case Institute Of Technology
  • City: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • More Facts
  • Education: California Institute Of Technology, Case Institute Of Technology
  • Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, Turing Award, IEEE John von Neumann Medal, Harvey Prize, National Medal of Science, Faraday Medal, Grace Murray Hopper Award, Josiah Willard Gibbs Lectureship, Fellow of the Royal Society, Turing Lecture

Childhood & Early Years

Donald Knuth was born on January 10, 1938 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Ervin Henry Knuth, taught bookkeeping at Milwaukee Lutheran High School and played the organ during the Sunday services at the church. His mother’s name was Louise Marie Bohning.

Donald studied at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, where he developed a love for investigating sentence structure. But although a bright student, he generally stayed away from mathematics.

While he was in this eighth grade, a confectionary manufacturer sponsored a competition, which required students to find out how many words could be created out of “Ziegler’s Giant Bar”. For two weeks, Donald toiled with a dictionary, eventually coming out with 4500 words, two thousand more than the judges.

Equally good in physics, he also won honorable mention in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for his unique suggestion that potrzebie was equal to the thickness of Mad Magazine # 26, or 2. 2633484517438173216473 mm. However, during his high school, he was more interested in music than anything else.

Initially, he played saxophone in the school band, but later took up tuba, aiming to pursue music after graduating from school. However, he did not neglect his studies, graduating from there with highest grade point average, earning physics scholarship from the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio in 1956.

College Years

On earning the scholarship, Donald Knuth abandoned his music ambitions and joined the Case Institute of Technology to study physics. In the very first year, he was introduced to the IBM 650. After reading its manual, he decided to rewrite the codes, believing he could improve on it.

By the second year, he started losing interest in physics practical. By then, he had met Paul Guenther, a mathematics professor, who began to persuade him to change his major to mathematics. Concurrently, he continued to pursue his interest in music, playing with the college band.

In his second year, while going out for a performance, he missed the bus that was to take the college band to the venue. To pass time, he started solving a mathematical problem. It earned him an ‘A’ in the class, providing the boost he needed to switch to mathematics.

In 1958, he produced a computer program for his college basketball team, rating each player on such criteria as shots missed, steals and turnover. According to the coach, it helped the team to win the league championship. It also led to his photo being published in IBM’s publicity page.

In 1960, he published two papers entitled ‘An imaginary number system’ and ‘On methods of constructing sets of mutually orthogonal Latin squares using a computer I’. The latter was jointly published with R C Bose and I M Chakravarti.

Also in 1960, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from Case Institute, graduating summa cum laud from there. In an unprecedented move, the faculty also voted to confer on him a simultaneous Master’s degree in Mathematics, as they considered his works outstanding.

In 1960, he joined California Institute of Technology, where he began working for his doctoral degree. Concurrently, he continued to pursue his interest in computers and became a software development consultant to the Burroughs Corporation in Pasadena, California.

In 1962, Addison-Wesle, a well-known publisher of text and computer books, asked him to write a text on compilers. Although he was busy with his doctoral thesis he immediately started working on the project.


In June 1963, Knuth earned a PhD in Mathematics on his thesis, ‘Finite semifields and projective planes’. In the same year, he began his career as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Concurrently, he continued to work on his book.

As he started on his work, he realized that to do justice to the topic, he first needed to develop a fundamental theory of computer programming. Later, as he started working on the outlines, he came to the conclusion that he needed at least seven volumes to cover the subject.

The first volume of his book, ‘The Art of Computer Programming’, was eventually published in 1968. In the same year, he joined the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Communications Research Division, a private think tank, located on the Princeton University campus, dedicated to helping the National Security Agency solve cryptology problems.

In 1969, he joined the faculty of Stanford University, remaining with it until his retirement in 1992.

In 1969, he published the second volume of ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. He published the third volume in 1973. These three volumes were highly appreciated, becoming favorite textbooks although 1970s.

Concurrently with working on compilers, he also started working on other topics including algorithms. His work on this subject is today known as the ‘Knuth–Morris–Pratt string-searching algorithm’. In 1974, he published ‘Surreal Numbers’ a mathematical novelette on John Conway’s set theory construction of an alternate system of numbers.

In 1977, he was appointed Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science and in 1990 Professor of The Art of Computer Programming. In 1992, he retired from active service in order to finish ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. Thereafter, he was appointed Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming.

Major Works

Although Donald Knuth has published more than 150 papers and more than 20 books, he is best known for his comprehensive monograph, ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. Initially he had planned to write it in seven volumes; but has so far completed only four. Despite that, the work has gained tremendous critical acclaim.

Awards & Achievements

In 1974, Knuth received the Turning Award for his book ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. Other awards received by him are ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award (1971), the National Medal of Science (1979), the John von Neumann Medal (1995), and the Kyoto Prize (1996).

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975 and the French Academy of Sciences in 1992. In 2003, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS). That apart he has received numerous honorary degrees.

Family & Personal Life

On 24 June 1961, Donald Knuth married Nancy Jill Carter. The couple has two children: a son named John Martin Knuth and a daughter called Jennifer Sierra Knuth.

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