Alan J. Perlis received a B.S. in chemistry from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1943, and an M.S. (1949) and PhD (1950) in mathematics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). At M.I.T. he worked on Project Whirlwind from 1948-1949, and again in 1952, after a year at the Ballistic Research Laboratories, Aberdeen Proving Ground. In 1952 he became director of the Computing Laboratory and an assistant professor of Mathematics at Purdue University. In 1956 he took a position at Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie-Mellon University). There he was director of the computation center, 1956-1960; chair of the Department of Mathematics, 1960-1964; and chair of the Computer Science Department, 1965-1971. In 1971 he was appointed Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Yale, and served as chair of the Computer Science Department 1976-1980, except for the 1977-1978 year when he was the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computer Science at the California Institute of Technology.
Throughout his professional life, his dominant interest remained programming languages. In the mid-1950s, Perlis began to design the IT (Internal Translator) compiler at Purdue and he completed the project after moving to Carnegie Institute of Technology. As chair of the Association for Computer Machinery committee charged to develop a common universal programming language in 1957, he worked to create ALGOL. ALGOL is a second generation language which led to PASCAL and other derivative languages and helped establish new standards for the development of programming languages. Later, Perlis worked with APL while at Yale.
Perlis wrote several articles and books on programming and compilers including an introductory text on computer programming. Perlis was active in the Association for Computer Machinery, becoming the first editor of Communications of the ACM(1958-1962), and president of the ACM from 1962 to 1964.
Perlis received the A. N. Turing Award of the ACM in 1966 and the AFIPS Education Award in 1984.