Adrianne Wadewitz, a scholar of 18th-century British literature who became one of the most prolific and influential editors of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, died on April 8 in Palm Springs, Calif. She was 37.
The cause was head injuries sustained in a fall on March 29 while Ms. Wadewitz (pronounced WAH-de-wits) was rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, said Peter B. James, Ms. Wadewitz’s partner.
She had taken up rock climbing only in the last couple of years, and on her personal blog she described the thrill of creating “a new narrative” about herself beyond that of a bookish, piano-playing Wikipedia contributor.
The bulk of Ms. Wadewitz’s work at Wikipedia concerned biographies of women, particularly writers and thinkers from the era that she studied to earn her Ph.D. An early contribution, or “edit,” was in 2006, when she “punched up the intro” to the article about Jane Austen, to note Austen’s “masterful use of both indirect speech and irony.”
More than 49,000 edits later, Ms. Wadewitz had created a whole library of articles about figures like the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the children’s book writer Mary Martha Sherwood and the “woman of letters”Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Each of these biographical articles was labeled a “featured article” — the highest praise her fellow editors could give — appearing on the site’s home page.
“It is a huge loss for Wikipedia,” said Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation in San Francisco that runs Wikipedia, who has made a priority of getting more women to edit it. “She may have been our single biggest contributor on these topics — female authors, women’s history.”
Ms. Wadewitz defied many of the stereotypes of a Wikipedia editor — young, male, tech-obsessed. But she was typical of Wikipedia editors in “being persnickety, fact-obsessed, citation-obsessed,” Ms. Gardner said.
While Wikipedia is famously the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the bulk of the unpaid work is done by a relatively small number of people willing to devote the time to do the research, navigate the editing system and learn the community mores.
The reward for contributors like Ms. Wadewitz, Mr. James said, is that their work can reach a large audience. “She had a succinct way of saying it,” he recalled. “As an academic you could write a paper on a particular topic, and it might be read by dozens of people, whereas if you write a prominent Wikipedia article it might be read by millions of people.”
Adrianne Wadewitz was born on Jan. 6, 1977, in Omaha and grew up there and in North Platte, Neb. She attended Columbia University, graduating in 1999 with a degree in English. She earned her Ph.D. from Indiana University in 2011. At her death, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College.
Besides Mr. James, she is survived by her parents, the Rev. Dr. Nathan R. Wadewitz and Betty M. Wadewitz.
This summer, she was to take a full-time position in the digital humanities at Whittier College, integrating online skills with liberal arts research and education.
Ms. Wadewitz’s interest in rock climbing played out on Wikipedia. Her last editing was to improve an article about Steph Davis, a prominent female climber and wingsuit flier. In Ms. Wadewitz’s hands, the article became filled with personal details, spectacular photos, a highlighted quotation and 25 footnotes.