KIRSCH RUSSELL A. KIRSCH Russell A. Kirsch died August 11, 2020 at his home in Portland, Oregon, from a form of Alzheimer's disease. He was 91. Kirsch was a pioneering computer scientist who was on the team that built the U.S. government's first programmable computer (SEAC) in the early 1950's. He is credited with creating the first computer digitally-scanned photograph in 1957, a now-famous 176 pixel-square black and white image of his infant son. That first-scanned image is regarded as a foundation for modern digital photography and computer image processing and was included in "100 Photographs that Changed The World" (Time Life Books, 2003). His work in image processing led to such diverse technologies as CAT scans, satellite imaging, desktop publishing and bar codes. Kirsch, the son of Russian and Hungarian Jewish immigrants, was born in New York City in 1929. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, with, as he used to say, "later refinements" at New York University, MIT, and Harvard University. He spent his entire 50-year professional career as a research scientist at the National Institutes of Science and Technology (formerly the U.S. National Bureau of Standards), in Washington, D.C. He headed the Artificial Intelligence Group which, beginning in the late 1960s, worked to bring early AI methods in computer-assisted pattern recognition and image processing to advance a wide variety of fields including cancer detection, biomedical imaging, currency counterfeit detection and archeology. The Kirsch Operator, named for him, is a mathematical algorithm he invented to detect edges in images. His research was widely published in scientific journals and he lectured broadly worldwide. In his retirement years, Russell and his wife Joan (nee Levin), an art historian and printmaker, moved from the home they built in rural Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. to Portland, Oregon. They pursued research into picture grammars and the work of the artists Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Miro. They also traveled the world photographing and researching cave art in France and petroglyphs in Africa, Europe and the U.S. and brought their respective skills to creating stereoscopic images of these ancient petroglyphs to better understand the nature and sequence of their creation and to help distinguish between ancient drawings from modern imitations. In the 1960s and 1970s, Russell and Joan took many multi-day wilderness backpacking trips with their four children through the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. In their later years, they hiked and mountain climbed worldwide, including extended trips across India, Europe, Asia, and the Himalayas. Kirsch's first notable mountaineering achievement, he once said, was as a college student rolling a whole watermelon from atop the 11,500-foot Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. In his final years, as his decline began, he became a prolific poet, writing hundreds of poems - some of them humorous - describing, among other things, his personal efforts to keep his mind and wit sharp. He was active in professional scientific communities including as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a life member of IEEE. In addition to his wife of 65 years, Kirsch is survived by his children Walden (Portland, Oregon), Peter (Denver, Colorado), Lindsey (Seattle, Washington) and Kara (St. Paul, Minnesota), and four grandchildren: Nathan, Noah, Gus, and Gabrielle - all of whom he loved dearly. No service will be held.
Published in The Washington Post on Aug. 13, 2020.