University of Waterloo


Donald Cowan is a pioneer in Canadian Computer Science. Shortly after finishing his PhD in 1966, he became head of the Computer Science Division of the Mathematics Department at the University of Waterloo. In 1967, he became Chair of the new Department of Applied Analysis and Computer Science, which started with only four faculty members of professorial rank in Computer Science. In the five-and-a-half years that followed, Cowan grew this to 26 research faculty plus five lecturers. It has been close to a half-century since Cowan stepped down as department chair, but the tone had been set for a large department focussed on both cutting edge research and on Canada’s largest and best know undergraduate programme in the subject.

Dr. Cowan’s early international connections also led to several programmes bringing faculty members from other countries to do PhD’s at Waterloo, and sending Waterloo faculty for visits to these countries. Such programmes were developed with four Latin American countries, the largest being with Brazil through which several dozen of their faculty members came to Waterloo and Toronto. For this and related efforts, Donald Cowan was awarded the Grand Cross of Scientific Merit, Brazil’s highest civilian scientific honour (2007).

Professor Cowan has been and continues to be a prolific researcher with close to 300 refereed publications, 17 books and 120 graduate students. His research has covered a broad spectrum of Computer Science. It has included local and wide area networks and their economics from the 1960’s with the development of CANUNET, a pan-Canadian computer network, to the 1990’s as a leader of the team producing the first local area network for personal computers. His work has also included the first efficient techniques for various combinatorial problems, state machines for communication protocols, and one of the first comprehensive editors for text tagged with the standard markup language SGML (which we now recognize as including hypertext and web page design).

Cowan’s research and teaching interests led him to involvement with many software systems developed at Waterloo for educational use. Software systems developed by the Computer Systems Group from 1965 to 1995 have been used in over 3000 institutions in 60 counties, primarily in universities. Cowan has been Director of the Computer Systems Group since 1992. He was a director of WATFAC, a private charitable foundation also developing software for the education market. Funds from both of these efforts have been used for scholarships, summer fellowships for students and teachers, and to help fund a chair in Health Informatics.

For these and other efforts, Dr. Cowan has been awarded a Doctor of Science, honoris causa, from the University of Guelph (2011), ACM Distinguished Scientist (2010) and is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo.