Don R. Swanson, information science pioneer, 1924–2012

Don R. Swanson believed laboratories weren't the only source of new scientific discoveries. Swanson, a specialist in the relationship between natural and computer languages, thought electronic databases also held the key to medical knowledge.

A trailblazing information scientist, Swanson died Nov. 18 at age 88.

Concerned that excessive specialization could inhibit scientific creativity, Swanson pioneered the field of literature-based discovery, which uses existing research to create new knowledge. The three-term dean of the University’s Graduate Library School and professor emeritus in the Humanities Division believed that unearthing unseen links between two distinct areas of study could yield new discoveries—what he called “undiscovered public knowledge.”

In 2000, Swanson received the ASIST Award of Merit, the highest honor from the American Society for Information Science & Technology, for his work.

Arrowsmith: ‘An intellectual adventure’

Swanson famously tested his theory of undiscovered public knowledge with a 1986 paper in which he made a provocative connection between dietary fish oil and Raynaud’s disease, a circulatory disorder.

In a search of the Medline database, which houses millions of scientific journal abstracts, Swanson found a common thread in research on Raynaud's disease and dietary fish oil. His hunting turned up numerous articles that described high blood viscosity in patients with Raynaud’s disease; in a separate search, he found a body of research that showed dietary fish oil could reduce blood viscosity.

The implication of bringing these two literatures together was powerful:  could fish oil, Swanson wondered, be used to treat Raynaud’s disease?

A clinical trial three years later validated the use of fish oil for patients with Raynaud’s disease. Swanson later hypothesized a connection between migraine headaches and magnesium deficiency that was also subsequently supported by clinical research.

Spurred on by these findings, Swanson and Neil Smalheiser of the University of Illinois at Chicago developed Arrowsmith, a piece of software that assists investigators in identifying connections between two sets of Medline articles.

Arrowsmith (named after the 1925 Sinclair Lewis novel) was aimed at building a “systematic, computational” method to find possible links among articles, Smalheiser said. “The computer was not supposed to generate discoveries, but it was supposed to identify and put together these potential assertions.”

The Arrowsmith model proved influential, and the approach Swanson and Smalheiser developed has been adapted to study the correlations of genes with diseases and find possible new uses for medications.

Despite the impact of Swanson and Smalheiser's work on Arrowsmith, “We never saw it as anything other than an intellectual adventure,” Smalheiser said.

‘Experiments with information’ not salamanders

“Don was doing science, without dissecting a salamander,” said Mark Olsen, assistant director of the American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL) project, a major digital humanities project that was influenced by Swanson’s work. “He was doing experiments with information.”

Swanson began his career studying physics as an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology. He received his MA in physics from Rice University in 1947 and his PhD, also in physics, from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1952.

Even in their early days, computers were a source of fascination for Swanson. “I think he was always dazzled by the idea of the computer,” said his wife, Patricia Swanson.

Swanson worked as a computer systems analyst at Hughes Research & Development and research scientist at Ramo-Wooldridge Corp. & TRW, Inc., before he joined the UChicago faculty in 1963 as dean of the Graduate Library School (which closed in 1990). Swanson's background as a physical scientist set him apart from the seven previous deans of the school, who represented a variety of other disciplines. 

At the GLS, Swanson initially focused on computer-aided information retrieval, an entirely new area of study at the time.

“At the time Don began working on it, people simply couldn’t imagine that you could retrieve information with a computer,” said his colleague Abe Bookstein, professor emeritus in the Humanities. “In a field that was very qualitative, Don was instrumental in introducing quantitative formal techniques.”

He was also a rigorous and encouraging teacher, according to his former GLS student Charles Blair, who remembered Swanson for his “very clean, organized and methodical approach to his subject.”

Swanson happily lent his expertise to colleagues around the University. In the early days of the ARTFL project, Prof. Robert Morrissey came to Swanson for advice on how to handle organization of the massive new database. “He told me, ‘What this project needs is a little sunshine and water,” remembered Morrissey, the Benjamin Franklin Professor of French Literature and director of ARTFL. “He was very generous with his time.”

That generosity was not unusual for Swanson, according to Smalheiser—Swanson went “out of his way to be nice and encouraging,” Smalheiser said.

Swanson’s quiet manner belied a mischievous sense of humor that led him to write satiric articles, for example, “New Horizons in Psychoanalysis:  Treatment of Necrosistic Personality Disorders,” in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1986).

Not only intellectually witty but also physically fit, Swanson was an avid runner who completed a half-marathon at the age of 80.

But his work was by far his greatest passion, according to Patricia Swanson. “He was always trying to do something better,” she said.

In addition to his wife, Swanson is survived by his son, Richard B. Swanson; and his daughter, Judith A. Swanson, PhD’87. Another son, Douglas A. Swanson, died in 2004.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Swanson’s honor may be made to the University of Chicago Library, the Nature Conservancy or the Heritage Foundation.