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Friday, 09 February 2007


Nusrat Rabbee

Dr. Patrick Purcell was my advisor when I was a summer student intern at the MIT Media Lab. It was my first tech job in 1983. Being a young female student from Bangladesh, I was intimidated by the giants in my field of Computer Science. I was hired by Patrick and was able to learn how to program the limb movements of a marionette hooked up to a PC. I was so grateful for the training and the mentoring. I was part of the first Computer Science graduating class of Wellesley College. I did many courses and internships at MIT during 1981-1985. I always remember Patrick as an early mentor. He was kind. I wish his soul a deep restful sleep and enjoyment in the heavens.

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Helen Kellington (Murray)

I was saddened to learn of the death of Patrick Purcell. I went to school with Patrick from 1961/2 to 1965 in London and whilst he was very much part of the group he was a stand out, which is supported by the previous comments. I have never forgotten him and googled him a few months ago and we chatted for a while amd reminisced about old school friends and our year of studying Buckminster Fuller with Dr Keith Kritchlow and how stimulating it all was. We all went our separate ways and clearly Patrick's road has been a road of distinction. Patrick is one person in my life that I will think of from time to time and won't ever forget.

Jacky Hovey

This is a wonderful site and a fitting tribute to my dear friend Patrick Purcell. We first met during the very early years of the life of the MIT Media Lab. Back then I was employed by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and since DEC was a contributing member to the Media Lab, it was possible - with Patrick as the "tour guide" - to visit the Lab and see all the extraordinary work going on there. I remember well two of the individuals whose names I've seen on this site - Glorianna Davenport and Muriel Cooper. There were so many other marvellous people doing breakthrough research there! One anecdote I recall was Patrick telling me that the Lab folks preferred DEC machines to those supplied by IBM, and that one particular IBM machine had earned the nickname of "Meat-head". Somehow I always had the sneaking suspicion that when IBM people visited, the story would get reversed! I can only imagine incurring his wrath if I'd ever challenged him on that. Thanks to Patrick, and his role as the "Corporate Sponsor Coordinator", it was a great privilege to visit the place in person, and to see over the years what a huge influence it has had on so much of the technology we have in the world today.

Over the years, after Patrick left the Media Lab, we stayed in touch and I would email or call him when I planned to be in London so that we could meet for a meal. In 2001 I learned that his partner Gillian had died, and that loss must have impacted him greatly.

I shall never forget his phone call to me when I was in London on that tragic day of September 11th, 2001, and was delayed several days beyond my planned flight trying to get back to Boston. He was deeply concerned and supportive - offering his flat if I needed a place to stay for those extra days.

The last time I saw Patrick was in the fall of 2005. He had not been well earlier in the year, but told me in an email that he was, as he put it, "alive and kicking and coming to terms with a new situation, where UK citizens plan to murder fellow citizens going about their business." This was shortly after the London tube bombings (July 7, 2005). Many of us with family and friends in London were devastated and terrified of finding out that someone we knew had been hurt or killed.

For me, Patrick was the soul of kindness and a very dear personal friend. His passing is a huge loss, I treasure the memories I have of him, and his presence on this earth made me a better person. My deepest sympathy goes to his family, and to those of you who were close friends, associates and students of his.

My great thanks to Sunny Bains for this website - the posts by Patrick's relatives and friends are deeply moving. Also, to Rick Boardman. When my recent "new year email" to Patrick failed, I googled "Patrick Purcell", and it was via Rick's blog - his remembrance of Patrick - that I learned that this great man had died in 2007. Somehow I can see Patrick smiling. After all, it's yet another example of the "networked neighborhood"... the "connected community".

Ben H. Davis

I knew Patrick during my stay at MIT as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and then as a Research Associate at Project Athena. He was very much the heart of the Media Lab and Visual Language Workshop. We had a lot of discussion about videodiscs and interactive media as he was something of a mentor to all of us trying to use these things for education. He was always interested in a laugh and always happy to let you bring visitors to the Lab. We had a lot of fun in those years (1984-1990) and I will always remember him fondly.

Stephanie Hogan for  Sister Immaculate (Molly) Purcell

I am posting this comment on behalf of Sr. Immaculate (Molly) Purcell:

"Padraig's death has left a large void in my heart. I will never forget his kindness and thoughtfulness while I lived in London. He visited me frequently and I was always refreshed by his visit. He was the essence of kindness. May his beautiful soul rest in peace."

Aunt Molly is a St. John of God sister and teacher by profession but also Partick's cousin. Molly Purcell moved into Partick's home in the 1930's as a child, to live with his two sisters, mother and father after the untimly death of her own mother. She was brought up as his sister in that respect. After 50 or more years as a teacher and parish worker in London she has resently retired and lives in Kilkenny.

Sunny Bains

I thought just working on this site and Patrick's obituary would be enough to make me get through losing Patrick, but it hasn't been. Last week I had a dream that I was helping with some administrative stuff relating to his funeral and bequests, and it was all getting a bit complicated. Then, he walked into the room, looking just like the last time I'd seen him! I was first thrilled, then devastated that I'd caused so many people pain in telling him that he was dead.

Then I woke up. I figured the dream meant I still had stuff left to say about him, so I'm going to try to do that here.

Patrick was a force for good. He saw people's talents. He listened. He made them feel he could achieve what they wanted to achieve. In the time I knew him (2001 onwards) he was the one everyone would turn to when the system was sucking the life out of them and they no longer believed in themselves.

He was also modest. I realized only after he died (while writing his obituary) how little he actually talked about himself. Sure, we knew some things, but little about his work and accomplishments.

And there's no doubt that he appreciated women! Initially it could seem a little intimidating: Patrick would zoom in on any new woman in the group and get their life story (he never forgave me for only giving him a couple of minutes with my mother on their first meeting!) But he really cared about women, was interested in them, could see their spark. For a man in technology to have so many women who cared about him (as you can see here) says how genuine that care and interest was.

To me, Patrick was a friend and a therapist and a cheerleader. Yes, he could sometimes be a bit prickly (especially if I insisted on paying for something!), but that was all trivial stuff. I feel very lonely without him. We all do.

Jean Agnew

I first met Patrick and Gillian in 1970 when I married Kenneth Agnew and gained not only a husband, but a great group of friends at the RCA. We all moved around, but we met whenever our paths crossed, sometimes in London, sometimes in Ulster, but not nearly often enough. The year we returned from Ulster, Gillian died, quite without warning. We continued to stay at their flat from to time. Most of her things remained just where she had left them which was curiously comforting – it felt as though she was still living there. Patrick solved his return to self catering with characteristic flair; he timed his evening departures from Imperial to coincide with the moment when Waitrose reduced the prices on the fresh food, sometimes leading his students after the assistant with the re-labelling gun, like seagulls following the plough. He was a wonderful host, providing a whole fridge full of raspberries, strawberries, fruit juices, croissants and exotic honeys for breakfast. We used the flat as a base, meeting for 'happy hour', generally from about 11.30 p.m. (after all those stimulating discussions at Imperial) when he would break out the brandy and we would sit and talk and debate – and you had to sharpen your wits to debate with Patrick. It was irresistible though: he was a terrible tease and an expert at trailing his coat. We often discussed Irish history (my field): he was extremely widely read and knowledgeable and told us how outraged he had felt when he discovered that his school history lessons about the United Irishmen had failed to mention that both Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell were Protestants.

I shall miss his love of debate, his gentle kindness and his wicked wit, but most of all I shall miss the flirting.

Kenneth Agnew

Patrick and I have been friends since he joined the RCA Industrial Design Engineering Research Unit in the mid 60s. In short order he found a way into the massive computing resources of the National Physical Laboratory and next brought in computer based architectural research from the Min of Works, complete with team, to be based in our offices. This was followed by the end-to-end trenching of the mews behind our South Kensington building following his acquisition of a land-line from the Atlas computer at Cambridge. Round the clock working was not unusual in the unit but Patrick, busy building his research group, knew the Darwin building night staff better than any of us and set a pattern that he followed all his life.

As the RCA unit dissolved in the late 70s he moved full-time to MIT with its vast resources and frenetic USA work-rate. By the late 80s I was at the University of Ulster helping to create a school of design on the Magee Campus at Derry – add the emergence there of a new Faculty of Informatics and the scene was set was for interdisciplinary research and courses. Following MIT’s labour permit difficulties, it was possible to appoint Patrick to a developmental Professorship at Magee and a group of us, with John McGregor as anchor man, developed a new MSc.

My weekly visits to Derry were greatly enlivened by ‘team lunch’ at the fabled fish restaurant, Reggie’s, and we grew to accept that Patrick never ordered pudding but raided everybody else’s. Our position at the side of the political and personal tensions of a rapidly growing campus gave us a slight feeling of detachment and almost subversiveness –so our lunch gatherings became the ‘Reggiecides’. Despite monastic accommodation in the student residence, Patrick enjoyed good living but was surprisingly abstemious with alcohol. He explained that under-graduate days among the bars of Dublin were filled with joy. His little group, complete with dog, led all the rest, but one particularly hung-over morning it was concluded that it was bad for the dog, and a more temperate regime took over. This supported his custom, almost unknown on the Magee campus, of working in his office until the campus was closed for the night. As elsewhere, it became quickly known among the students that there was some-one with whom to talk through problems after hours. This growing band became known as the ‘grave-yard shift’. Apparently the correct term is now ‘collegiality’.

Patrick was deeply surprised to be told that Ulster professors had to retire on reaching sixty five. This did not inhibit Imperial College London who promptly employed him nominally as visiting professorial research fellow for the rest of his days. A grave-yard shift quickly materialised and one of the sights near mid-night at the local branch of Waitrose was to see this august figure, with a little group of post-grads, trailing the store assistant with the ticket gun as he marked down the prices on the groceries.

Life in South Kensington suited him beautifully since it simplified his access to MIT where he had continuing academic responsibilities. After a late dinner at the Goethe restaurant last September on a delightfully warm evening we went for a walk among the strangely intimate humming, shining town-scape of Imperial College buildings. I remarked that this was his ‘village’, which he liked. I only realised later that for him the MIT Media Labs were just the other side of Gloucester Road tube station and were part of his village. Which underlines the happiness of a unique man who made his whole life in four of the most creative, civilised institutions on the planet. He re-paid them well – and enriched our lives.

Kenneth Agnew

Brian Reffin Smith

In about 1975, I presumptuously applied to do a master's degree at the Royal College of Art, in an area between art and science. I remember, at the initial interview, the raised eyebrows and studied sighs of the people from the cultural studies side, but they had roped in Patrick, from the Dept. of Design Research, as a cultural bridge. When I left, it being almost as clear in my mind as theirs that my future did not lie in their hands, Patrick pursued me out into the corridor and sort of half drawled, half hissed, "Why don't you apply to us?" Papers were produced and filled in, and the upshot was 2 years, and later a research fellowship and teaching job, spent in the best department of any art and design school anywhere, the multi-disciplined and polymathic DDR. I don't think Patrick recognised something in me that the others had missed, rather that he wanted to share the amazing possibilities of that department with someone who just might learn to appreciate them. I did, and thank him for that.

Brian Wyvill

I had to laugh when I read Sebastian Macmillan's comment about Patrick and the Arpanet. I had exactly the same experience in 1976. There was Patrick, very late at night while his colleagues in the US were at the end of their working day. When Patrick told me he was talking to the US over his ancient teletype, I had similar thoughts, 'why doesn't he just phone them?'

After spending the last 25 years in Canada I was pleased to run into Patrick at Siggraph a few years ago. He was talking about a party he had been to the previous evening where he had met with a bunch of teenagers talking about their email accounts. One of them asked, "When did you get an email account, grandpa?" "In 1973(?)" Patrick replied and the kids left laughing and of course not believing him! You are right, Sebastian, he was way ahead of his time!

Steve Little

I met Patrick through the Design Research Society, in the early seventies and when I was considering forsaking architectural practice for the DDR doctoral programme at the end of 1980 he was strongly encouraging.

Although he was already at MIT by the time I completed my studies he was keeping in touch with the RCA through first generation e-mail which involved, at our end, a miraculous device combining an acoustic coupler for the telephone handset, a keyboard and a thermal printer.

My first full-time academic post was in Australia, and I visited Patrick in Boston en route, enjoying his hospitality and a very valuable contextualisation of the work of the Media Lab. The on-line video clip is very much of that period. I have strong memories of Patrick's gigantic Pontiac, Boston sea food and the difficulty of calibrating a first generation touch-sensitive screen when severely jet-lagged.

We remained in touch, and a late afternoon e-mail from Brisbane inevitably got a response next morning, thanks to the time zones and Patrick's generosity with his time. Miraculous at the time in terms of technology, still noteworthy in terms of collegiality.

Carol Strohecker

Patrick was exceptionally open-minded and a model for what it means to listen. I will always be grateful for his mentoring and friendship.

Cristina Romano

I've known Patrick for few years now and I remember him to be an exquisite gentleman and having always a kind word and a smile whenever meeting him around College. A proper Irishman at heart, he as jolly and good company. Will miss you, Patrick!

Anthony Finkelstein

I was saddened to hear of Patrick's death. Patrick was my first PhD supervisor at the RCA though he departed soon afterwards to the USA. I visited him on a couple of occasions at MIT and subsequently when I joined IC as a member of staff we used to bump into each other regularly. I enjoyed his company and valued his advice. It is perhaps worth remembering just what extraordinary pioneers he, Bruce Archer and Richard Langdon actually were. The work done at the RCA, the ideas formulated and the synthesis created were astonishingly prescient. Patrick will be missed.

Murray Shanahan

I first met Patrick in 1998 when I joined the Dept. of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, where we were both members of the Intelligent and Interactive Systems group. But it was only in the last four years or so that we really got to know each other, both being members of a small crowd of regular sushi-goers in the evenings. It was always a great pleasure to have Patrick's company. I especially admired the way he straddled the arts and the sciences, something that was reflected in the eloquence and breadth of his conversation.

Patrick also had a terrific sense of humour. I sometimes teased him that 'Purcell' was a very English name for an Irish republican. "You should have a proper Irish name like 'Shanahan'", I would say - ironically, as I was born and brought up in England. But he could always give as good as he got in these little exchanges.

Patrick led a varied life that brought him into contact with many interesting figures. One anecdote especially sticks in my mind. When he was a small boy, he was once presented to Maud Gonne, the muse of W.B.Yeats and a prominent figure in Irish politics. She would have been an elderly lady at the time, but to little Patrick she was "a very imposing presence" towering over him.

Patrick's death came as a great shock to me, as he was always very active and seemed in such good health. I will miss him very much.

Sebastian Macmillan

Patrick was at the Department of Design Research at the RCA in the seventies when I went there as a young architect to do my PhD. He had a basement room completely lined with books, and a very small window. And he had a computer terminal connected up to the Arpanet. He told me very proudly that he could send instant electronic text messages to colleagues in the US who would receive them as soon as they switched on their computer. And I thought to myself, though I didn't say so, 'what possible use could that ever be?' He was way ahead of his time.

Bob Spence

The pursuit of research into Human-computer Interaction can be a lonely activity at Imperial College. So when I realised that Patrick Purcell was approaching retirement from his appointment in Northern Ireland I immediately suggested to the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering of Imperial that he be invited to be a Visiting Professor. A very selfish act, no doubt, but one I have never regretted and one whose benefit to a wide variety of scholars is placed clearly in evidence by the comments collected here. I have personally benefited from the intellectual rigour of Patrick’s discussions and from the personal qualities so elegantly reflected upon by others.

Probably the last time he ventured from his flat near Gloucester Road was to meet me for dinner at a local restaurant opposite the College. On this occasion the intellectual rigour was undiminished, as was his typical gentle banter with the waiters and waitresses. The only thing missing was his typical request to the waitress - ‘and two spoons’ - once his dinner companion had ordered dessert. Retrospectively I was happy that all those qualities rightly praised by others in this memorial site were undiminished to the end.

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