Cecilia Berdichevsky

Quick Info

30 March 1925
Vilnius, Poland (now Lithuania)
28 February 2010
Avellaneda, Argentina

Cecilia Berdichevsky was a mathematician who played a major role in developing work with the first computer to be installed in Argentina in 1961. This work ended in 1966 with the coup which caused many academics to leave Argentina. She remained in the country taking on numerous accounting and IT roles.


Cecilia Berdichevsky was given the name Cecilia Tuwjasz, only using the name Berdichevsky (or Berdichevski) after she married in 1951. Her family were Jewish and, although she was born in Vilnius, part of Poland from 1922 to 1945, she spent the first five years if her life in Vidzy (also known as Widze) which, like Vilnius, was part of Poland from 1922 to 1945, but it is now in Belarus. Jews in Poland suffered attacks during the 1920s, partly because they were not assimilating, partly due to an influx of Soviet Jews as a consequence of the Russian Civil War. The Polish government became increasingly hostile towards the Jews creating difficulties in their working lives. Vidzy was, however, a very picturesque town, situated in a beautiful area, surrounded by lakes, forests and natural hot springs, much visited by many people for the healing powers. The Tuwjasz family, unhappy at the increasingly dangerous situation for Jews, decided to leave Poland and Cecilia's father went to Argentina in 1928 to set up a new life for the family. In 1930 Cecilia, her parents' only child, and her mother joined her father in Avellaneda, a port city in the province of Buenos Aires in Argentina. She explained (see [6]) that Vidzy is:-
... a place that changed hands many times due to wars, invasions and treaties. If I had been born earlier, perhaps I would be Lithuanian or Russian, if I were born there today I would be Belarusian, but I am legally Argentine by adoption and by choice.
Cecilia's father died not that long after they had settled in Avellaneda and, a few years later, her mother remarried. Cecilia attended school in Avellaneda and it was at the High School she attended that she became friendly with a fellow pupil Rebeca Cherep. Cecilia and Rebeca both loved mathematics and excelled at the topic at the High School. After graduating, however, they chose different routes to a mathematical career. Cecilia felt that there were two ways in which she could pursue a career in mathematics, either by doing an accounting degree or by studying for a B.Sc. in mathematics. After graduating as a Chartered Accountant from the National School of Commerce of Avellaneda, and although her passion was mathematics, she decided to pursue a degree in Certified Public Accounting, something that helped her to obtain a double degree. Then, without any real enthusiasm, she practiced as an accountant for ten years.

In 1951 Cecilia married Mario Berdichevsky (1921-1990), the son of Zelik Berdichevsky and Maria Olschansky. Mario was a leading gastroenterologist, who is credited with bringing the endoscope to Argentina. Mario worked in the Hospital Fiorito in Avellaneda, one of the most important hospitals in the Buenos Aires area. In 1955 Cecilia accompanied Mario who was spending a year working in Paris, France and while there she decided to take a course studying statistics. During this year in Paris she met Manuel Sadosky whom she had heard much about from her friend Rebeca Cherep who had married José Guber and is better known by her married name of Rebeca Guber. Rebeca had studied mathematics with Manuel Sadosky and had continued to encourage Cecilia to study pure mathematics. Cecilia said [6]:-
I met Manuel Sadosky and I told him about my frustrated love for mathematics. He told me that he offered some courses at the Faculty of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences. I preferred, however, to enrol on a regular basis and take the full degree, and I obtained my Bachelor's Degree in Mathematics, in 1960, working at the same time in the Faculty as a teaching assistant.
Manuel Sadosky was the Professor of Mathematics at the University of Buenos Aires and from 1957 to 1966 he was vice-dean of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences. Sadosky taught analysis at the University of Buenos Aires and Cecilia's friend Rebeca Guber was working as his assistant. When Cecilia Berdichevsky returned to Argentina after spending the year in Paris, she enrolled to study mathematics at the University of Buenos Aires. Among the students studying mathematics there at that time we mention Manuel Sadosky's daughter Cora Susana Sadosky and another student Pilar Suter who studied mathematical physics and went on the obtain a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics. Berdichevsky was fifteen years older than Cora Sadosky which must have made her student years quite challenging. This may explain why Manuel Sadosky spoke of Berdichevsky as being "a very shy young woman" when all who knew her later in life said she was extraordinarily outgoing. Pilar Suter said Berdichevsky was a hard-working student who was one of the best students in every course she took.

While working for her B.Sc., Berdichevsky had been aware of the ongoing work to found a Computational Institute at the University of Buenos Aires and purchase a computer. She wrote [2]:-
After issuing an international bid that year [1957], all members of a special commission from the University of Buenos Aires selected the Ferranti Mercury computer to be purchased for the University.... The installation of the Mercury was completed by the beginning of 1961. The reason for such delay was that the chosen room to place the computer, being prepared on the second floor of the new building of the School of Exact and Natural Sciences, was not yet ready and did not suit the required strict Ferranti specifications. The members of the staff appointed to work with our Mercury were to be trained in Manchester, at the Ferranti plant. This was one of the factors that favoured the choice for the Mercury computer. Actually, that training began in Buenos Aires; our teacher was Cicely Popplewell, who had been one of Alan Turing's assistants. Ernesto Garcia Camarero, a Spanish mathematician engaged by the University for the training of future computer users, also participated in the formation of the analysts and programmers of the Institute.
A small team began work with the new computer including Manuel Sadosky, Rebeca Guber, whom Berdichevsky describes as "a mathematician and excellent organiser" and Berdichevsky herself. The Ferranti Mercury computer was known from the time it was installed as Clementina. This was because it had been programmed to play the song Oh My Darling, Clementine. Cicely Mary Popplewell (1920-1995), supported by the British Council, arrived in Buenos Aires at the beginning of 1961 to train the staff to use Clementina. She had studied the mathematical tripos at the University of Cambridge and from 1949 worked with Turing in the Computer Machine Learning Department of the University of Manchester. She had written the Programmers Handbook for the Ferranti Mark 1 in 1951.

Berdichevsky wrote [2]:-
By the time Mercury arrived and the operations began, I had the luck to have in hand a real problem of Physics that Mercury solved as soon as it was installed. In one of her first mornings in Buenos Aires, Cicely Popplewell gave me a private lesson in which I got instructed on the programming needs of a problem to which I had devoted several months of Nestler Rule calculation without reaching the solution. That afternoon, the problem got solved.
Manuel Sadosky was the Argentinian representative on the International Computation Centre which had its headquarters in Rome. In 1961 the International Computation Centre offered two fellowships to the University of Buenos Aires to train their staff in computing techniques. Berdichevsky received one of the fellowships and the second was never filled as nobody else had the necessary qualifications. The fellowship offered training for a year, six months at the Computer Unit of the University of London and six months at the Saclay Nuclear Research Centre in the south west suburbs of Paris. At both of these places there was a Ferranti Mercury computer. She writes in [2] about her work at the University of London Computer Unit:-
I became acquainted with a very powerful new method of calculating the eigenvalues of a general matrix, the Francis method, which I studied, programmed and wrote the specifications of, under the guidance of the Unit staff. The program that calculated the eigenvalues of a general matrix up to the order 15 × 15 was successfully applied. The second problem, a library routine on which I was working, was also finished and became the third library routine for the Mercury in the Unit.
While in London she also attended two lecture courses by James Wilkinson, one on 'Numerical Analysis' and the other on 'Matrix Calculus'. She also attended the course 'Numerical Methods for the solution of Partial Differential Equations' delivered by John Crank. In this course, Crank described some of his latest research results which had not yet been published. During her six months in England, Berdichevsky also found time to visit other computing centres such as the one at the University of Manchester and the one at the University of Cambridge.

In Saclay, in addition at a Ferranti Mercury computer, there were four IBM computers which were all being programmed using FORTRAN. If I [EFR] could add a personal note here, let me say that the first high-level language I learnt was FORTRAN 66. Berdichevsky writes [2]:-
In view of the equipment they had, a short period of my stay in Saclay was devoted to learn and practice FORTRAN, the high-level language that had been in use in the computing world since 1959 and was useful to programme the IBM machines in use in the Centre.
The program she had written while in London to handle eigenvalues of matrices was translated into FORTRAN with the help of staff at the Blaise Pascal Institute. While in France, Berdichevsky again attended lecture courses. One, delivered by Jacques-Louis Lions, was 'Approximation methods to solve Partial Differential Equations of the elliptic type' while the second was 'Matrix Calculus', delivered by Jean Louis Rigal.

Back in Argentina, Berdichevsky continued to work at the Computational Institute. She became Head of Practical Works of Numerical Calculus I, Manuel Sadosky being the head of Numerical Calculus I. When Manuel Sadosky was indisposed and could not give the theoretical lectures, Berdichevsky took over. Betty Burzomi who took the course said [4]:-
She was nervous at first, until she got over it, but later it turned out that she was very clear.
Hernán Huergo writes in [4]:-
Juan Carlos Fränkel, Marcelo Larramendy and Néstor Sameguini were students of mathematics at that time. Cecilia, in addition to being a teacher, worked with Clementina at the Computational Institute. Over time, the three students also joined the Computational Institute, and became colleagues and friends of Berdichevsky. The days were long. At the end of the day, the three of them and Cecilia would go to some pub chosen by Juan Carlos, the expert on the subject. Some spouses of the married couples also came, Olga, Betty and, from time to time, Mario the doctor. But there were times when the work went on until late at night and the pub trip was cancelled, to the despair of Juan Carlos. Sometimes the "industrious little ant," as Betty calls her, would go over a few revolutions. Like that of the Census that was processed once at the Institute, involving endless work. That day Cecilia did not return to her house until her doctor husband showed up unexpectedly. He pulled her away. "Take a good look at her," he told everyone, who had never seen him so angry, "because today is Cecilia's last day at the Institute. She is finished, you will never see her around here again." The next day Cecilia reappeared punctually, as she did every day, to continue working hard on the Census issue.
Berdichevsky's exciting career at the Computational Institute came to an abrupt end in July 1966 as the result of a political coup. Arturo Illia had become President of Argentina following elections in June 1963. He tried to split the Perónists, who controlled the unions, from their exiled leader Perón. The Perónists reacted by supporting a coup against President Arturo Illia in June 1966 and General Juan Carlos Onganía, the commander in chief of the army, took control of the country. Following the military takeover, the University of Buenos Aires was attacked by police in August 1966; this was known as the 'Night of the Long Batons'.
For a newspaper article which gives details of the problems that the Sadosky family experienced in 1966, see THIS LINK and also THIS LINK.

The coup resulted in most of the staff of the Computational Institute resigning and, two years later, the Ferranti Mercury computer Clementina was dismantled. Berdichevsky said [6]:-
Not only personalities like Manuel Sadosky went into exile - in 1974 - but, complete teams with their staff and equipment, went to enrich the science of other countries. For family reasons, I stayed in the country and began a management and consulting career.
In 1966 Manuel Sadosky, Rebeca Guber and Juan Chamero set up the company Asesores Científico Técnicos (ACT) which developed important computational mathematical models. From 1966 to 1970, Berdichevsky was a director of ACT and one of their consultants. Among her many other roles we mention the Caja Nacional de Ahorro y Seguro, the National Savings and Insurance Bank, in which she served first as IT advisor to the President, then as Deputy General Manager of IT. Later she was a representative of the Sociedad Argentina de Informática e Investigación Operativa (SADIO), the Argentine Information Technology Society, and represented that organization at the Federación Internacional de Procesamiento de la Información (IFIP), the International Federation of Information Processing.

Berdichevsky's husband, Mario Berdichevsky, died on 1 July 1990 [4]:-
The entire hospital joined hundreds of people from Avellaneda to cry loudly the day he died on 1 July 1990. Manuel Sadosky remembers the scene with all the nurses and doctors lined up on the steps of the hospital, an unforgettable ceremony. Belgrano Avenue was blocked by the people who came to pay their last respects to the great neighbourhood doctor, without caring about the cold or the rain. Juan Carlos Fränkel tells me that even the sick got up to go and join the crowd in the final farewell.
In all the references quoted below, we learn something of Berdichevsky's character. Here is a quote from [4]:-
"Cecilia is vital, tireless," says Juan Carlos Fränkel. "Cecilia is very enterprising," says Marcelo Larramendy, "once she gets something in her head, she doesn't stop. While at the Caja, she was convinced of the benefits of the Chip Card. She was a pioneer of the subject in Argentina." For Marcelo Larramendy, the chip card was something like a solution waiting for a problem, but the ideal problem never appeared. For Ruti, her niece, Cecilia was ahead of her time. She saw the issue ten years too early. "Cecilia is my aunt," says Julieta Burzomi, as if that phrase said it all. "She is fun, enterprising, cheerful. She is actually much more than an aunt."
Another quote from Hernán Huergo in [4] tells us something of how Berdichevsky treated her staff:-
I also spoke with Olga, her lifelong employee. "I have been working with her for 43 years. I am very proud." She also says that Cecilia is very cheerful. I asked her about her trips to Europe. "Oh yeah. I will never forget that first trip, it was a gift for me, I went crazy. First we went to Paris, 11 days there. Then London, 4 days, Manchester 3 days. Then Spain, 10 days in Barcelona, 4 in Madrid. From there to Italy, Rome, Venice, Milan. It was 45 days. We visited the museums, the churches, we did all the excursions. When I came back I spent a whole year thinking about the days I had lived with her. Later we went other times, but that first trip was something incredible. She is that generous!"
Berdichevsky suffered a stroke in 2007 and struggled over the following years trying to recover. She died three years later.

References (show)

  1. M C Abeledo, Cecilia Berdichevsky y Hedy Lamarr, Legado Femenino de la Ciencia y la Tecnología, Noticias UNSAM (8 March 2017).
  2. C Berdichevsky, The Beginning of Computer Science in Argentina - Clementina - (1961-1966): A Personal Experience, in J Impagliazzo (ed.), History of Computing and Education 2, Proceedings of the Second Conference on the History of Computing and Education, August 21-24, Santiago, Chile (Springer, New York
  3. Cecilia Berdichevsky, Historia de la ciencia y la tecnología (29 March 2019).
  4. H Huergo, Para mi amiga Cecilia Berdichevsky, en su cumpleaños número 80, DINOS y DINAS de la Informática en la Argentina (31 March 2005).
  5. Maruglobina, Mujeres en STEAM: Quién fue Cecilia Tuwjasz de Berdichevsky?, otresensteam (26 December 2021).
  6. A Zagalsky, Cecilia Berdichevsky, mi tía abuela, la primera programadora de Clementina, TN Tecno (7 December 2021).

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update November 2022