Jerome Lettvin, professor emeritus of electrical and bioengineering and communications physiology and principal investigator with the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics, died on April 23 in Hingham, Massachusetts. He was 91.
As noted in the MIT News Office, April 29 obituary, Lettvin came to MIT in 1951 under Jerry Wiesner, then-director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics, who later served as MIT president. Along with Lettvin, Wiesner also hired Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch, creating what would become a prolific team of neurophysiology researchers.
Lettvin is most noted for publication in 1959 of the paper "What the frog's eye tells the frog's brain." The paper became one of the most cited papers in the Science Citation Index. Lettvin and his team, including mathematician (and lifelong associate) Walter Pitts, Humberto Maturana, Warren McCulloch and Oliver Selfridge, demonstrated how specific neurons respond to specific features of a visual stimulus. Early skepticism on this new explanation gave way to a profound and lasting impact on the fields of neuroscience, physiology and cognition.
In addition to his work on vision, Lettvin carried out many important studies of the neurophysiology of the spinal cord and information processing in nerve cell axons. Though he is best known for his work in neurology and physiology, he also published on philosophy, politics and poetry.
Lettvin, popularly known as Jerry, was born in Chicago on Feb. 23, 1920, to Ukrainian immigrant parents. In an autobiography written for the Society for Neuroscience, he called his Humboldt Park surroundings materially poor but culturally rich indeed, Lettvin had his heart set on being a poet before his mother made the irrevocable decision that he was to be a doctor.
At MIT, Jerry Lettvin was noted for his extemporaneous speaking--most notably his debate in 1967 with Timothy Leary. Lettvin filled in at the last moment in what would become a highly publicized and later repeated set of arguments against using 'mind-bending drugs.' In Lettvin's words: "The kick is cheap. The ecstasy is cheap. And you are settling for a permanently second-rate world by the complete abrogation of the intellect."
Maggie Lettvin recalled her husband's mentoring and lecturing for a history of science class at MIT: Hed go in there and talk for three or four hours and the kids would bring their girlfriends, lunches, and just sit there forever.
He and Maggie served as housemasters of the Bexley Hall dorm in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time that was both enlivening and exhausting for them, he wrote in his autobiography. He was also one of the early directors of the Concourse Program, a freshman learning community that bridges the humanities and the sciences by exploring connections between disciplines such as literature and physics, or history and mathematics.
Lettvin is survived by his wife, Maggie; his three children, David, Ruth and Jonathan; and his six grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned; for more information contact Gill Pratt 83, SM 87, PhD 89, a former MIT associate professor and former graduate student of Lettvins.
MIT News Office, April 29, 2011, Emily Finn: "Jerome Lettvin, MIT professor emeritus, dies at 91. Dynamic cognitive scientist made key contributions to neurophysiology and vision science."