Overlooked No More: Karen Sparck Jones, Who Established the…


Sparck Jones had a booming voice and a puckish sense of humor. At work, she usually wore a simple uniform: bluejeans, red sweater, white blouse. She also wore a brooch that she made from part of a horseshoe and some stones. When she had to bike to a formal dinner, as one often did at Cambridge, she was known to use clothing pegs to pin her dress to the handlebars.

In 1982, the British government tapped Sparck Jones to work on the Alvey Program, an initiative to encourage more computer science research across the country. In 1993, she wrote, with Julia R. Galliers, “Evaluating Natural Language Processing Systems,” the seminal textbook on the topic.

In 1994, she became president of the Association for Computational Linguistics, an international group for professionals in the field.

In 1999, she became a full-time professor at Cambridge, and it bothered her that it took so long. For all the years before, she had been on contract with the university, an untenured and lower-status form of academic employment referred to as “living on soft money.”

“Cambridge was, in many ways, not user-friendly, in the sense of women-friendly,” she said of the delay.

In 2004, she won the Association for Computational Linguistics Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2007, the British Computer Society’s Lovelace Medal and the Association for Computer Machinery/AAAI Allen Newell Award.

She died on April 4, 2007, of cancer. She was 71. She did not receive an obituary in The New York Times, although her husband, who died in 2003, did.

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