David Wheeler was born in Birmingham, England, in 1927. He was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1945 and studied mathematics, taking his B.A. in 1948.
Wheeler started computer work as an undergraduate in 1947, and was granted a Ph.D. in 1951; his dissertation was titled "Automatic computing with the EDSAC." His wired-in EDSAC assembler of 1949, creating a simple system for users, led to a fellowship at Trinity College. He is generally credited as the first programmer to formally define and make use of the program subroutine, then known as a "Wheeler jump." He spent the next two years at the University of Illinois, helping design the programming system for the ORDVAC and ILLIAC machines, two important first-generation (vacuum tube) computer systems.
Wheeler spent time at the Universities of Illinois; Sydney, Australia; and California. He acted as a consultant to various organizations, including Bell Laboratories and Digital Equipment Corporation's Western Research Laboratory.
Wheeler was emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Cambridge, where he spent most of his career. He was elected a Fellow of the British Computing Society (1970) and of the Royal Society (1983), and was awarded a Pioneer Medal of the IEEE (1985). He passed away in 2004.