Böhm was one of the founding fathers of Italian computer science. His dissertation, from 1951, was one of the first (maybe the first? I don’t know the history of these ideas very well) examples of a programming language with a compiler written in the language itself. In the 1950s and 1960s he worked at the CNR (an Italian national research institution with its own technical staff), in the IAC (Institute for the Applications of Computing) directed by mathematician Mauro Picone. IAC was the second place in Italy to acquire a computer. In 1970 he moved to the University of Turin, were he was the founding chairman of the computer science department. In 1972 he moved to the Sapienza University of Rome, in the Math department, and in 1989 he was one of the founders of the Computer Science department at Sapienza. He remained at Sapienza until his retirement.
Böhm became internationally known for a 1966 result, joint with Giuseppe Jacopini, in which he showed, roughly speaking, that programs written in a language that includes goto statements (formalized as flow-charts) could be mapped to equivalent programs that don’t. The point of the paper was that the translation was “structural” and the translated program retained much of the structure and the logic of the original program, meaning that programmers could give up goto statements without having to fundamentally change the way they think.
Dijkstra’s famous “Go To Statement Considered Harmful” 1968 letter to CACM had two references, one of which was the Jacopini-Böhm theorem.
Böhm was responsible for important foundational work on lambda calculus, typed functional languages, and the theory of programming languages at large.
He was a remarkable mentor, many of whose students and collaborators (including a notable number of women) became prominent in the Italian community of theory of programming languages, and Italian academia in general.
In the photo above is Böhm with Simona Ronchi, Betti Venneri and Mariangiola Dezani, who all became prominent Italian professors.
You may also recognize the man on the right as a recent recipient of the Turing Award. Silvio Micali went to Sapienza to study math as an undergrad, and he worked with Böhm, who encouraged Silvio to pursue his PhD abroad.
I studied Computer Science at Sapienza, starting the first year that the major was introduced in 1989. I remember that when I first met Böhm he reminded me of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: a tall man with crazy white hair, speaking of wild ideas with incomprehensible technical terms, but with unstoppable enthusiasm.
One year, I tried attending a small elective class that he was teaching. My, probably imprecise, recollection of the first lecture is as follows.
He said that one vertex is a binary tree, and that if you connect two binary trees to a new root you also get a binary tree, then he asked us, how would you prove statements on binary trees by induction? The class stopped until we would say something. After some consultation among us, one of the smart kids proposed “by induction on the number of vertices?” Yes, said Böhm, that would work, but isn’t there a better way? He wanted us to come up by ourselves with the insight that, since binary trees have a recursive definition, one can do induction on the structure of the definition.
In subsequent lectures, we looked (without being told) at how to construct purely functional data structures. I dropped the class after about a month.