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Harold Wooster, 86; Computer Pioneer

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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

Harold Wooster, whose decades-long career in information science influenced the development of computer technology and medical television, died of a heart attack May 20 at the Carlisle (Pa.) Regional Medical Center. He was 86.

As chief of the information sciences division of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in the 1960s, Dr. Wooster awarded crucial early grants to many of the scientists and engineers whose research spurred the development of the Internet and personal computer. In the 1970s, while working at the National Library of Medicine, he supervised pioneering experiments in telemedicine, including studies on how residents of remote Alaskan islands could receive advice from doctors on the mainland.

In his prescient role as grantmaker, Dr. Wooster funded the early work of MIT Professor Marvin Minsky, Internet pioneer J.C.R. Licklider, computer theorist Ted Nelson, dolphin researcher John Lilly and computer mouse inventor Douglas Englebart.

He also funded projects on how to search, retrieve and store information. Some of those projects involve how microfilm or microfiche is read today and how key word searches are used on search engines, such as Google.

"He was good at spotting promising young talent and giving them money early," said his son, Martin Morse Wooster, a writer and philanthropy expert. "He realized that these people were doing research that was going to be important. When people write the history of the computer age, they will look at research that my father funded."

Dr. Wooster, deemed keenly imaginative and open to new ideas, was also known for sponsoring somewhat offbeat exploratory research projects, reportedly including one on how gnats could stay in a swarm.

He also contributed to Project Blue Book, the Air Force's 1966 investigation of UFOs. He left the Air Force's scientific research office, which considered him a pioneer in the information science field, in 1970.

From 1970 to 1984, Dr. Wooster worked at the National Library of Medicine's Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications. He supervised experiments using television to connect patients in remote areas to doctors. One study showed how a psychiatrist at Dartmouth College could, using a television monitor, examine a patient at the University of New Hampshire and give an accurate diagnosis. Under his direction, the New Hampshire-Vermont Interactive Network was built, allowing rural doctors to participate in medical meetings long distance.

Harold Wooster was born in Hartford, Conn., on Jan. 3, 1919. He graduated magna cum laude in chemistry from Syracuse University and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. He then went to the University of Wisconsin, where he received a master's degree in 1941 and a doctorate in physiological chemistry in 1943.

Dr. Wooster spent World War II developing poison gases for the military at the University of Chicago's Toxicity Laboratory.

After spending a year on a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, he became a senior fellow at Pittsburgh's Mellon Institute (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in 1947. He researched nutritional and food biochemistry and did writing and editing. He was editor of the quarterly journal Nutritional Observatory and wrote Nutritional Data, a reference guide that went through several editions.

Dr. Wooster edited several books about information science and an annual bibliography of Air Force Office of Scientific Research grants that was published for nearly a decade. He also wrote "Microfiche 1969 -- A User Study."

A cyclist, he once owned six bicycles, including an expensive Puch Austro-Daimler and a bike built from discarded parts. He served on the board of the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club for many years. He also was a technical editor of American Wheelman and wrote for Bike World.

In a 1982 article in The Washington Post, Mr. Wooster explained his search for the "ultimate bicycle": "It's a very limited section of the universe that I can control," he said. "I don't have to go to my editorial review committee or to the board of regents to get permission to change my bike. If I want to change things, I change them."

Dr. Wooster remained in the Washington area until 1998, when he moved to Carlisle.

His wife of 27 years, Marcia Wooster, died in 1968. A daughter, Pamela Wooster, died in 2003.

In addition to his son, of Takoma Park, survivors include his wife of 37 years, Alice Wooster of Carlisle; two other children from the first marriage, Ann-Sargent Wooster of New York and Katharine Wooster-Reynolds of Rio Linda, Calif.; a brother, Warren Wooster of Seattle; and a sister, Margaret Freeman of Williamsburg.


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