H. Donald Wilson

H. Donald Wilson

H. Donald Wilson (1923 - November 12, 2006) was a database pioneer and entrepreneur. He was also the first president and one of the principal creators of the Lexis legal information system, and Nexis. An attorney by training who became an information industry innovator and a venture capital consultant to numerous businesses, Mr. Wilson was also an internationalist and a conservationist. At the time of his death, he was chairman of Lessac Technologies Inc., a text-to-voice software venture based on nearly fifty years of partnership with Prof. Arthur Lessac. He is a graduate of Phillips Academy, Andover, Yale University, and Columbia Law School.


Personal life


Born in New Rochelle, New York, on November 21, 1923, he was the third son of Andrew Wilson and Edith Rose Wilson. He was raised in Edgemont and Scarsdale, New York. His father was the chairman of the Country Trust Company bank. He and his wife Mary Louise Swan Baron Wilson lived in White Plains, NY for 49 years.

Mr. Wilson attended public high school in Scarsdale, New York through ninth grade, and graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, MA in 1941. He was a freshman at Yale University when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and went immediately into an accelerated academic program. He took a B.A. degree with honors in international relations and served as an editor of the Yale Daily News. At Yale, he was a member of Berzelius and DKE. During this time, after a night of partying, he and his friend Lou Connick were found emerging naked from the waves on a Southampton beach at dawn. The new civil defense beach patrol took one look at these tall blond young men and arrested them on suspicion of being Nazi spies landing in Long Island to invade the United States. Both young men were eventually released but not before a local newspaper recorded the events.

World War II

Mr. Wilson shipped out to the South Pacific in 1944 as a lieutenant junior grade on the USS Paul Hamilton. He received his Yale diploma by mail in 1945. He served in seven battle campaigns including Leyte Gulf, Mindoro and Iwo Jima. At Okinawa, he served as assistant gunnery officer through the longest shore bombardment in U.S. history. He took command of a medium size landing craft (tank) in San Diego and sailed it through the Panama Canal and home to Charleston, North Carolina. he was discharged in June 1946. In the Navy, Wilson was exposed to the earliest forms of computers and also learned how to organize people, supplies and money.

Law School

Returning from the war, he commuted to Columbia Law School by motorcycle from Edgemont, graduating in 1948. He was head of the Moot Court Committee, which he reorganized, and graduated in the top 25% of his class. He loved to dance and was a sought-after partner for debutante balls and New York nightclubs. But he remained concerned about the possibility of a new world war. He joined the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell in New York City in November 1948, and resigned in March 1949. He said he did this "because of the conviction that another war was shaping up, that the United Nations could not keep the peace, and that the only way to prevent it was to work for development of the UN into a stronger was-prevention body." (From a 1953 resume.)

Don Wilson joined the law firm of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison in 1955. One of his accounts was the popular magazine Saturday Review, and he found a mentor in editor Norman Cousins. At Cousin's urging, Wilson and his friend William Josephson became the junior attorneys on a landmark case, Reynolds v. United States, involving the skipper of a boat arrested for sailing in to a Pacific nuclear test area. He also helped Cousins raise money to bring over the Hiroshima Maidens, Japanese women who needed reconstructive surgery as a result of nuclear radiation poisoning and the Lavenbruck Maidens, women who had been used as the subject of medical experimentation by the Nazis.


Don Wilson met Mary Louise Swan Baron (known as Peter) of Wellesley, Massachusetts, in Hartford, Connecticut in 1951, when she responded to a classified ad for his Federalist office. They married six months later in Wellesley, and had three children.


Mr. Wilson died suddenly in front of his computer, sending email at the age of 82. He had worked with computers all his adult life, starting in the Navy. He was not an engineer but he had a driving vision of what computers could be used for in society. From his engagement with LexisNexis on, he worked with databases and encyclopedias of all sorts. He consulted to several encyclopedia companies on their electronic futures, including Encyclopædia Britannica, and was fascinated with the combination of exponential growth of computing power (Moore's Law) and the availability of information via the internet. He was fascinated with the power of the Wikipedia concept, which he used as soon as it became available.

Civic contributions

United World Federalists

In 1949, he did some volunteer work for the United World Federalists (UWF) World Federalist Movement, "meanwhile studying the movement quite carefully." In June 1949, he was recruited by Cord Meyer to be Office manager of the ten-man office of the New York State Branch of the United World Federalists. He then worked in various capacities for UWF in New York, Connecticut and New England. As Executive Director of the Connecticut Branch December 1950 - April 1952, he planned and managed a fight in the Connecticut Legislature concerning federalist legislation adopted in 1949 and attacked by many isolationist groups. After a five month controversy, the legislation was retained by a close vote. Then he was asked to become Executive Director of the New England Council, which he had helped organize. In that position, he supervised the political work, field organizing, educational work and fund raising for the six New England states. He later worked out of the Midwest region, based out of Cleveland, Ohio.

Among the lifelong friends who were leaders of the UWF were Norman Cousins, the editor of Saturday Review magazine, Randolph Compton and Dorothy Danforth Compton, C. Max Stanley, and George C. Holt. He worked closely with Rodney Shaw, a United Methodist Church minister [link obituary 2/14/06 Wash Post] the Midwest director during the same period. All of them went on to distinguish themselves as leaders on key issues of the times such as nuclear disarmament, world peace, support for the U.N., population control, and civil and human rights.

In August 1955, Mr. Wilson resigned from the UWF after a power struggle between the local chapters and the national leadership. There were continuing financial problems and many of the field staff were not being paid. He was later offered various positions such as National Executive Vice-President.

Mr. Wilson remained involved in international issues for the rest of his life. He was active in Washington DC in the mid-1970s as Chairman of the United World Federalists, by then a smaller movement. With Margaret Mead, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Robert McNamara and James Grant, he founded New Directions, an ambitious attempt to create a citizen's lobby on international issues. It helped win passage of the Panama Canal Treat but ultimately did not obtain the necessary financial support for long term viability. Using his corporate experience, Wilson was instrumental in introducing the use of opinion polling, public affairs advertising, direct mail marketing techniques and focus group research to understand donor behavior to international issues. He believed that such modern lobbying techniques were essential to creating political support for international issues.

Peace Corps

He returned from service in the Pacific in World War II to become active in the United World Federalists movement. He quit law firm in 1949 to work full-time for the Federalist movement. Years later in 1970, he returned at the request of Luther Evans (former Librarian of Congress and head of UNESCO) as Chairman to modernize the organization. At this time, he helped put together a coalition of American leaders that founded a citizen's lobby on international issues, New Directions, that helped pass the Panama Canal treaty.

In 1964, he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as Peace Corps director for Ethiopia, the third largest country program. His family moved to Addis Ababa, and he presented his credentials to Emperor Haile Selassie, who said, in English, "Mr. Wilson, I fear you will have a more difficult time than your predecessor, for our students have begun to have ideas." Drawing on his international relations background and his war experience, he ably managed up to 700 volunteers at one time in the country and traveled throughout the mountainous region by Landrover and Cessna plane. He spoke Amharic and some Swahili, and spoke French with Emperor Haile Selassie. He pushed for a National Service program for the United States for many years after.

A speech Wilson gave on June 9, 2006 was called "From Idealist to Idealistic Realist With a Ride on Moore's Law Moore's law." He concluded the story of his life saying, "We are in a race between having new technology destroy us and using it to save ourselves."


Management consultant

In 1960, Wilson left the law to become a management consultant at Arthur D. Little, Inc Arthur D. Little. During the next ten years, his clients ranged from CBS Publishing, Creative Playthings, the introduction of the Sony Trinitron to the U.S. market, the commercial introduction of Velcro and many others. He carried out several studies of the maritime industry, including one on the introduction of containerization to the Port of New York. He later said that he advised the Port of New York to introduce containers slowly, since it would result in a major shift in labor. This advice was ignored, and as a result, the dockworkers union shut down the port for a lengthy and expensive strike. Eventually he managed the New York Office.

Lexis Nexis Database

Returning to Arthur D. Little in 1966, he continued to work on technological innovations. He was asked in the late 1960s to develop a business plan for a software company called Data Corporation, which had been acquired by the Mead Corporation (forest-products, paper-processing, pulp-making) in late 1968. Founded by William Gorog [1] and his partner, Lysle Cahill, Data Central had received Air Force Funding and developed a range of innovations in equipment, camers, printers, and software. This included an Information Systems Division that had a promising on-line database software technology made possible by the power of the new IBM 360 computers. This kind of information retrieval was then in the very early stages in terms of what was technically possible. An interesting discussion of this period is found in the account of engineer Richard (Dick) Giering. The question was whether this information retrieval was a viable business, and if so, what direction it should take in terms of markets.

There was already an initial relationship with the Ohio Bar Association (OBAR), interested in new approaches to managing data. Wilson and his colleagues presented their research and the resulting business plan to James McSwiney, President, William Womack, Executive Vice President and other senior officers of the Mead Corporation on February 4, 1970 in Dayton, Ohio. A transcript of the meeting was made, and the original business plan still exists—entitled " A Major Opportunity for Mead to enter the field of information services through automated legal research—Business Venture Analysis." On the Arthur D. Little side were H. Donald Wilson, Edward Gottesman, Jerome Rubin, Richard Erb, Edward Smith III, Robin Woodward, Anthony Gunn, and James Hoyte. William Gorog represented Data Central. Based on this study, the venture moved forward and eventually the Mead Corporation hired Wilson away from Arthur D. Little, Inc. to be the first president. Jerome Rubin also left ADL at this time and became the second president of MDC after Wilson moved to the board of the venture as Vice Chairman.

One of the significant factors in Lexis's success was Wilson's ability to bridge the worlds of business, law and computers. His insider's knowledge of the sociology and particularly the hierarchy of law firms was fundamental to the business plan he and his team worked out. In this period, few lawyers knew anything about computers, and most senior attorneys disdained them. Jerome Rubin, then an attorney on the team, makes the interesting comment in the 1970 presentation about "knowing nothing about technology". Wilson, by contrast, was trained by the Navy to use early radar and other computer systems and had an engineer's attraction to and understanding of technological innovation. This knowledge helped shape Lexis into a viable business venture. It is also clear from the 1970 presentation that Wilson understood how fundamentally this innovation would change the practice of the law, a vision that was proved out. The comments that appeared in various internet chat rooms in November 2006 when his obituary appeared attested to other people's recognition that Lexis and Nexis were transformative technological applications. Law librarians were particularly outspoken about how these innovations changed research. It is estimated by Dr. David Evans of Carnegie Mellon that up to 1991, only 100,000 people used search engines regularly and a significant portion of those were LexisNexis users. In this sense, the early use of these databases by the legal and journalist communities led the way to our Google search engine world.

Wilson later advised many publishers about the early development of database businesses, and worked with many startups such as Polygon, Oxford Analytica, Toxicheck, and ConQuest Software (later Excaliber) where he was Vice-Chairman. A board member of the Information Industry Association, he received its leadership award in 1992, 1993, and 1996.

Lessac System for Voice

For 58 years, Wilson was the business partner of Arthur Lessac, who has become an internationally known professor of voice. Upset at being turned down by the Yale Glee Club, Wilson first sought out Lessac as a voice coach in the 1940s. Later, Wilson gave Lessac a desk, typewriter and secretary to write The Use and Training of the Human Voice [2], now in its third edition. He also helped Lessac popularize this voice and body system. Lessac Technology Inc. (LTI) was created in 2000, and is now developing computer software for voice-to-text technology. As chairman of the venture, Wilson worked with the CIO, his longtime associate, Gary Marple, to obtain several patents in the two years before his death at the age of 82.


  • Online Before the Internet, Part 6: Mead Data Central and the Genesis of Nexis: An Interview with Richard Giering by Susanne Bjorner & Associates [3]

For further research: H. Donald Wilson papers are located at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, including papers on the development of Lexis-Nexis and the World Federalist Movement.

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