Catherine Wolf, 70; studied how people, computers interact

By Richard Sandomir New York Times  

NEW YORK — Catherine Wolf, an experimental psychologist whose research focused on enhancing interactions between humans and computers — and who, after illness left her paralyzed, relied on her laptop to communicate, using a system that let her wiggle an eyebrow to pick out letters — died Feb. 7 at her home in Katonah, N.Y. She was 70.

Her husband, Joel, said the cause was sepsis, a complication of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.


Dr. Wolf’s work at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Westchester County, N.Y., helped programmers develop voice-recognition systems that, for example, let users compose text by speaking to a computer and banking customers make transactions by telephone.

“When she started, you couldn’t speak naturally to a computer and have it understand anything,” John Vergo, principal research staff member at the Watson center, said in a telephone interview. “You had to stop between each word, and you could only hope the computer recognized what you’d said.”

When Vergo led IBM’s development of a speech-recognition system that did not require stopping after each word, he said, Dr. Wolf was “a technical mentor” who “knew what it took to design systems that worked.”

Her research included examining how people acted in their workplaces, to see how they would use the systems that were being developed. It also included testing prototypes on potential users.

She felt the first symptoms of ALS in 1996: She was unable to flex her left foot during a modern dance class, and her left calf hurt when she ran.


“At first I resented the diagnosis and clung to the hope that I had something else,” she wrote in the journal Neurology Now in 2014. “Anything but it.” Yet after several opinions, she finally accepted the verdict from an ALS specialist.

The life expectancy of someone with ALS averages two to five years after a diagnosis, according to the ALS Association. Yet she survived 22 years, placing her among the 10 percent of patients who live at least a decade with the disease.

“Other than ALS, I am in perfect health,” she joked in 2005 during an e-mail interview with The New York Times. But the remark underscored her belief that, save for the disease, she had the hardy constitution of her father, who died at 103, and her mother, who died at 98.

Dr. Wolf stayed at IBM until 2003, working from the company office in Hawthorne, N.Y., helped by a nurse and an aide.

“It was one of the most amazing and herculean efforts I have ever witnessed,” Vergo said.

After Dr. Wolf left the company, she started writing poetry, some of it about her dramatically altered life. In “Words” (2007), she described her need to continue to communicate with the world, albeit through the slow accretion of letters that she chose with her eyebrow movements:

Squeezing each word out with gargantuan intensity

Like an ancient chiseling words in Aramaic

I will be heard!

Make no mistake.

It will take more than ALS to shut me up.


Dr. Wolf initiated her writing by moving her right eyebrow, which activated an infrared light sensor near her eye, which in turn let her choose the letters she needed from a keyboard on her laptop’s screen.

Catherine Deborah Gody was born in Washington on May 25, 1947. Her father, Lou, was an engineer, writer, and editor before opening a sewing machine shop in the 1940s. Her mother, the former Celia Star, was a government economist.

After graduating from Tufts University with a degree in psychology, Catherine earned master’s and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology from Brown University. She did further postgraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was then hired by Bell Labs, in Holmdel, N.J., where she worked on improving the interaction between people and both the Picturephone and an early cellphone.

“It was so big and expensive that we thought only traveling salespeople would use it,” she said, referring to the cellphone, during an interview for “Hear Me Now,” a biographical film about Dr. Wolf by Maia Weinstock that made its debut on YouTube this year. “I didn’t envision the cellphones of today.”

In addition to her husband — whom she met through a computer-dating service in 1966, and who worked as a mathematician at IBM — Dr. Wolf leaves her daughters, Erika and Laura; five grandchildren; and her sister, Dale Gody.

Dr. Wolf did not confine her writing to poetry after ALS left her paralyzed. She wrote passionately about health care, the environment, politics, and her battles with her insurance company over denying her certain medications. She also advocated for the disabled. In a 2011 issue of Neurology Now, she described activities that patients with disabilities could get involved in.

“Most people with neurologic diseases feel better when they are doing something about their situation,” she wrote. “I certainly feel better when I am involved in advocacy. It gives me a sense of purpose.”

She used her experience as a disabled scientist to expand the ALS functional rating scale, a standard questionnaire that measures the functional abilities of patients with the disease. She noted that the questionnaire — on which she finished very poorly because of her advanced condition — did not ask about computer usage, finger and toe movement, or home mobility.

With three other researchers, Dr. Wolf published a paper in the European Journal of Neurology in 2009 in which they suggested adding questions like “Do you currently use a computer?” and “To what extent have there been changes in your ability to show expression in your face?”

The revised scale is administered to all participants with ALS enrolled in the biorepository brain bank at the VA Boston Healthcare System, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She told Brown Alumni Magazine that year, “I am most proud of that paper of all my publications.”

Her poems were, by turns, dark, witty, warm, sensual, and mournful; they excavated a life that had been turned inward by the devastation of ALS. In “I Didn’t Know,” published last year in Rat’s Ass Review, she recounted a birthday trip with her family to the running trail around the lake in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

Returning there reminded her of how much she loved nature — the afternoon sun “glancing off the lake like a ring of fire,” the leaves “crunching down beneath my feet like tiny drums, or discarded beer cans.” And, she concluded:

I never knew how many things I loved until I/ was in the wheelchair on the trail where I used to run.