Remembering Martin and Virginia Davis

My parents Martin and Virginia Davis both died on Sunday, January 1, 2023. They were in their nineties. My father had been sick for a long while and in a great deal of pain, so in some ways his death is a relief. Martin and Virginia had been married for 71 years, and Virginia said she didn’t want to live without Martin.

After the hospice nurse confirmed Martin’s death, Virginia kissed him and then went back to bed. A short time later she was gone. I think she died of a broken heart. Both were peaceful looking in death. It was as if Martin held out his hand to Virginia, and said, “Come on. Let’s go!”

Martin and Virginia in 2011 © Harold Davis
My parents soon after they met (circa 1951) 

Both my parents were remarkable and unconventional people. Here’s what my brother Nathan wrote about Martin’s professional career:

Martin Davis  was considered a pioneering figure in the history and development of the computer science field. In his last decade, he was regarded the primary world exponent of Alan Touring’s seminal work in logic and computability theory (they shared the same same thesis advisor at Princeton University—Alonzo Church—though my father attended a decade later). My father coined the phrase “computability,” per his first and seminal book: Computability and Unsolvability. His work towards the solution of Hilbert’s Tenth problem is another factor that places him historically in transitioning the theoretical mathematical field of symbolic logic to the advent of computer science.

You can learn more about Martin’s professional life here.

Virginia was a fiber artist who exhibited widely, was the recipient of many awards, and was dearly beloved by a wide circle of colleagues. Here’s how her website puts it:

After studying art in London and at the Art Students League in New York, Virginia Davis has had her work in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries, nationally and internationally. She uses ikat, a technique of applying color to threads before they are woven into a textile, not only for the dimension it gives her work, but also for its historical and ethnographic aspects. She teaches, lectures and writes on this and other subjects. Her awards include an Indo-American Fellowship to India, two fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, two individual Visual Artist grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, NEA sponsored residences at the Cité International des Artes in Paris and in Mexico City, and most recently, a grant from the Ruth Chenven Foundation. In addition to private collections, her work is in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of North Dakota, and Hewlett-Packard.

Martin Davis as a young man

On a personal note, while the past year has been unequivocally difficult, I miss them both tremendously. I keep find myself wanting to share something with one or both of them, and then having to remind myself that I no longer can.

Martin taught me to play chess, to program computers at an early age, to enjoy Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and what the Hegelian dialectic has to do with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (on the last one, you can ask me if you are curious).

From Virginia I learned to trust my intuition, to explore art as play, and to appreciate some of the finer points of craft.

There are no tears deep enough, but it is some consolation to know they are together and at peace at last.

White Anemone © Harold Davis

This Post Has 41 Comments

  1. Dear friends, lovely people, exemplary couple

  2. Dear Harold,
    My sincere condolences for your loss.

  3. I’m so sorry about their passing. I got to know them in our Ethnic Studies Textile group at the De Young. They were so kind, interesting and engaging. I wish I had gotten to know them more, but covid came and time passed. Their memory will be a blessing to all who knew them.

  4. I am so happy that I have known Martin and Virginia for 45 years. Virginia and I studied kasuri weaving from Jun Tomita at Fiberworks in Berkeley. It was so wonderful to have an ikat weaver friend. Martin took me shopping for my first computer and set me up. I admired them and loved them so much. We all will miss them. I visited them on December 26, 2023.

  5. Your father helped me get a career without really knowing me.
    Never met him, only met your mother once, but they helped shape my adult life.

  6. Your father’s class was the best class I took on my way to getting a doctorate at Courant. Afterwards, he was kind enough and generous enough to help give me, a below-mediocre math sort, guidance on some readings in mathematical analysis. Thank you for the above remembrance.

  7. I am honored to have shared memories of Mexico and Mexican ikat weavers with Virginia. I didn’t know your dad but was impressed with his loving support of her enthusiasms. They are off on their next adventure, I wish them well. Thank you for letting us know.

  8. So sad to hear this…Virginia and Martin were dear friends and remarkable people. They will live on in many memories of those who knew them.

  9. Exemplary, fine, creative, intelligent, thoughtful people. Your comments are moving, heartwarming and honor a remarkable couple. They both leave important contributions to the world.

  10. Sincere condolences. I knew your mom from Textile Study Group of NY and from a group called Network. We were also UWS neighbors. Even a brief encounter in our neighborhood was a treat. I treasure memories of Virginia’s boundless curiosity, her infectious smile, her playfulness, warmth, and generosity. Strength, Courage and Sympathy to You and to your family.

  11. Condolences to you and Nathan and your whole family. Martin and Virginia were amazing people whose contributions to the world and to my own life have been significant.

  12. Your father was my Ph. D advisor in the sixties. I wrote my thesis on the axiom of choice for finite sets. He was teaching a course on real variables at the Courant Institute , and I had office space at the institute that year. He would drive me to the Upper West Side, where we both lived, and I would tell him what I had done over the past week.

    Martin delivered many mathematical talks at City College, his alma mater and my employer. I greatly missed him when he moved to California. I last saw him and talked to him briefly, via zoom, when he was awarded as one of City College’s three outstanding living math majors.

  13. Your parents were beautiful people who opened their hearts and their homes to all. I loved them dearly and will miss them. But glad they are at peace.

  14. Both of your parents were dear friends of my father’s (Richard Pollack). One of your photograph’s hung in his leaving room. I have very fond memories of both of them. May their memory be for a blessing

  15. Dear Harold,
    Your father was my PhD advisor in the 1970s. He was the ideal advisor in every way, most importantly, he was a true mensch. I remember how he patiently sat with me and together we rewrote every sentence of my very first paper (what a great stylist he was!). And when one of the referees of my dissertation objected to something your father thought was not relevant, he quite literally rescued my PhD.
    We disagreed about politics and religion, but I so respected his intellect that in the over 40 years since I finished my doctorate, I have often heard Martin’s voice in my head challenging my views and this has kept me honest. I’ll continue carrying that voice in my head as long as I live.
    Sincerest condolences and wishes for many fond memories of both your parents.

  16. I am Martin Zuckerman’s wife. By chance- more than a year ago- I met them on a bus when they were visiting New York. They were sitting behind me when I overheard that he was about to publish a book around Christmas time and turned to ask what kind of book. He told me and I said – “Oh, that’s my husband’s field”. “Who?” I told him – he said he knew Martin – and from then on we had quite a wonderful conversation until their stop. It was a short acquaintance, but really open and lovely. Martin speaks of him often – and I wish I had known them both better.

  17. My condolences to the family. I knew Martin and Virginia as part of the Zydeco Community whom I would chat with at Ashkenaz. What a loving couple. Serenity knowing they died peacefully and within hours of each other. What a Blessing.

  18. My condolences to the family. I was prof. Davis graduate student at NYU in 1981/82, and I will always remember him as a kind person and greatest of all my professors.

  19. Harold, I was sorry to hear this news, and also sorry that I never had the opportunity to get to know your folks better. We had a lovely conversation at our last piano recital. May their memory be for a blessing!

  20. Dear Harold and Phyllis,
    I met your parents / parents-in-law as interested and warm people who showed me an extraordinary hospitality. They maintained a close and trusting relationship with each other. It is therefore perhaps a comforting twist of fate that they were allowed to die on the same day. So no one had to endure the pain of losing a loved one or become ill from it. My sincere consolations. Julian from Heidelberg

  21. I came to know of the news of Martin’s and Virginia’s death through a message on the FOM mailing list. Their life is so inspiring to so many of us!

    I am a novice (and perhaps will remain so) in the study of logic, mathematics, and computability. I am still planning to read Martin’s book, “Computability and Unsolvability”. I hope I can finish (at least one reading of) it some day.

  22. Harold I never knew your parents but I know their son and by extension what wonderful and engaging people they must have been. I cannot attend their memorial service in person but I will be there is spirit. My prayers are with you and your family.

  23. Harold, you are profoundly lucky to have parents so special in so many ways. I found the story of their death to be so moving. Thank you for sharing.
    Reading about them makes my understanding of your life and your determination to live creatively and fully more deeply understood.
    Come with your wife and family to Bolinas one of these spring moments. With much gratitude Linda

  24. You were so fortunate to have such exceptional lineage. From your photo of the two of them,, one can understand their devotion to each other. May you continue to thrive.


  26. I knew today was Martin‘s birthday and just found out that both he and Virginia are no longer with us. I met them through my partner, Ricky Pollack, who loved them both as I did. They were so full of life and fun. We stayed at their beautiful house in California and had many dinners in New York City. I will miss them both tremendously — they really enhanced my life and I am so grateful to have known them both. My deepest sympathies.

  27. I was fortunate to have met Virginia at many Weave a Real Peace meetings and my husband and I were fortunate to be guests at their home on several occasions. Such wonderful, brilliant and generous people. An honor to have known them.

  28. I’m so very sorry to hear of the loss of your parents.

  29. I just found out today from Hillary that Virginia and Martin are gone. As always, I was thinking back about Virginia and Hillary’s work with Don Evaristo. It’s hard to imagine, yet inevitable. Oh, Virginia, I learned so much from you. You and Martin were both one of a kind. I’m glad we got to be together in many different circumstances, especially after you encouraged me to join WARP. You both were utterly unique and tops in your fields, and in sharing your gifts and enjoying life in a way that always uplifted others. I’m sure you will rest in eternal peace.

  30. Hi Harold – just today I was remembering Trupti’s and my first date – watching the fireworks on July 4,1997 from your parents’ balcony. I looked up your dad and learned you lost both Martin and Virginia at the beginning of the year. I was very sorry to hear that he had been suffering – Mike’s last few years were hard due to his atypical Alzheimer’s but I don’t think he was in physical pain.
    My father held a lifelong affection for Martin and Virginia (and Brecht, particularly Mahagonny) and so (for my, to date, considerably shorter life) do I.

  31. Dear Harold,
    I am very sorry for your loss of your parents.
    I found your mother Virginia’s work online last year. There was a great photo of her in her 80’s in her weaving studio; I sent it to a friend with the note “who I want to be when I grow up”. I am a textile designer and sometime-weaver and the discovery of your mother’s work was very inspiring to me. I hope to be able to see some of her pieces in person at some point, the motifs and techniques are timeless and mesmerizing, she obviously had a great love of color, materials, and weaving. This is apparent even in the online images of her work.
    I was re-looking at her work on her website today to get inspired, and contemplating ordering the DVD made about her, which led me to search her name and find this obituary. I regret I won’t ever have the chance to meet her, but please know that her online presence and that of her work continues to inspire!
    My sincere condolences,
    Leslie Johnson

  32. I just came to know of your father’s passing. I am so sorry about that. Martin was my advisor for my PhD. I have many fond memories of my relationship, e.g., I would be sitting in my office (on the 5th floor of Courant) and I would come up with an idea and I would just wander down to his office (on the 4th floor) to bounce some ideas off of him. Over the years, I have always found that the 1 on 1 communication has been the best way to exchange ideas. I took a long time to complete my PhD and what ultimately gave me the kick in the butt to get me moving was when, in 1983, he announced that he was going to California for a year’s sabbatical, and I knew that if I didn’t move it, I would lose my opportunity to have the direct communication. There is one other specific fond memory that I have completely not academically connected. Martin approached me one day and asked if I could find someone who could officiate at an unveiling for, I believe it was his mother. I asked my Rabbi if he would be able to do this or if he could recommend someone. The Rabbi was not available that day, but he said to me “You could do it. It’s not difficult.” In the end, Martin, Virginia and I drove out to the cemetery together for the unveiling. That personal memory probably matches up as much as any academic interaction I had with your father. May his memory be blessed.

  33. I found this blog through wikipedia article about Martin. I wanted to say your father’s book on the history of computer science was a great help when I was a struggling computer science student years ago. It gave me the motivation to continue. 20 years later, now I just finished translating it in Korean in the hope that more people find Martin’s work useful and inspirational.

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