Remembering Murray Eden, 1920-2020

September 1, 2020

Professor Emeritus Murray Eden, photo credit Abby Eden


Murray Eden, Emeritus Professor in Electrical Engineering at MIT, passed away on August 9, 2020, in Tucson, AZ. He was one week shy of his 100th birthday.


Eden was associated with MIT from 1959 until 1979; his groundbreaking body of work was split between MIT, Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization, and focused on pattern recognition and its application in medical image processing. The groups of researchers and students he collaborated with and mentored were responsible for foundational advances in medical technology, including the development of one of the first PET scanners and the first applications of wavelets to computed tomography. Eden also contributed to a dizzying number of collaborative efforts that marked the world in ways profound (during WWII, he helped produce Uranium-235 in the Princeton section of the Manhattan Project alongside then-student Richard Feynman) and picayune (he was responsible for the inclusion of numbers underneath every modern UPC code).


Eden’s career at MIT began in 1958, when he joined the Communications Biophysics Lab as an Associate Professor, becoming a Professor of Electrical Engineering in 1964. He cofounded the Cognitive Information Processing Group, served as House Master of Senior House, and co-edited and -authored the seminal work “Recognizing Patterns: Studies in Living and Automatic Systems”, published by MIT Press in 1968.


Eden’s influence on the seniors under his supervision was memorable, even a bit mischievous. Reflecting on his time in Senior House, lifelong friend Ken Kotovsky, now Professor Emeritus of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, says, “[Eden] was a guide to a richer political world than growing up in the 1950s exposed me to, both the ideas and even a sort of activist stance toward the world. One example of the latter is about a lounge we wanted to put in the basement of our dorm. Murray accompanied us to a meeting with Institute administration where they explained that there wasn’t enough money in the housemaster’s budget to do the demolition and the renovation. Murray casually commented on the way back that in his day, students might have knocked down the walls themselves. That night, we did just that, leaving a floor covered with about two feet of rubble! Lest this suggests that Murray was a negative influence on us unruly undergrads, the dorm won the academic award for highest cumulative GPA that year—something that seemed to belong to the fraternity system up until then.”


Another of Eden’s early colleagues at MIT, Oleh Tretiak (now Professor Emeritus at Drexel University) said, “I was blessed by my association with Murray Eden. He served on my doctoral committee in 1963, and I continued working in the Cognitive Information Processing Group for 10 more years. This research collective, headed by Samuel Mason, William Schreiber, and Murray himself, initiated research in many aspects of Digital Image Processing, as well as in other areas such as Image Coding (now HDTV), sensory aids for the handicapped, and the study of human cognition. Murray and I started research on the analysis of microscopic images and published some of the earliest papers on Computer Tomography. In addition to research and teaching, Murray also involved me in the MIT student experience: as Housemaster of Senior House, he engaged me to become Senior Tutor at that dormitory. I enjoyed the stimulation and excitement of living with young people, fresh away from home and experiencing the excitement of the 1960’s.” 


Even within the context of that tumultuous decade, Eden was a particularly vocal and committed activist. One of the original members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Eden was active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, and introduced keynote speaker George Wald at the famous March 4, 1969 “Scientists Strike for Peace”, in which MIT faculty, students and staff brought research and teaching to a halt to protest institutional complicity in the war. By this point in his career, Eden was already a seasoned activist; as an undergraduate, he’d written for the City College of New York’s radical student newspaper, City College Campus, only quitting when he was pressured to join the Young Communist League. Looking for a group more in tune with his beliefs, he joined a secular Zionist student organization, Avukah, in which he made lifelong friends with noted linguists Zellig Harris and Noam Chomsky. Their association was wildly productive, guiding all three scholars to prescient interdisciplinary inquiry. Kotovsky remembers, “I took a course 6 class from [Eden], co-taught by Noam Chomsky, that was, in 1960-61, a harbinger of the cognitive science revolution that was to guide the rest of my academic life. It was a tour de force of interdisciplinary exploration, ranging from neuroscience to experimental psychology with many disciplines in between, and it led to my doing my senior thesis under Murray’s direction, even though I was not an electrical engineering student. The thesis was on using Claude Shannon’s information theory to model the transmission of information in visually presented words, based on word and trigram frequency. Its reach was typical of Murray’s breadth and openness, and it led to my subsequent career in cognitive science.”


In 1979, Eden accepted an offer to head NIH’S Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Program (BEIP); he received the Director’s award in 1993. He also held visiting appointments as adjunct professor of electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University and guest professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland), and acted as a consultant on research and development for the Director-General of the World Health Organization—work for which he was awarded the WHO Medical Society medal in 1983.


After retiring from NIH in 1994, Eden remained active with invited lectures, seminars in optical illusion, and as an adjunct professor in environmental health at Boston University School Public Health. A Life Fellow of the IEEE, Eden served for many decades as the Editor of Information and Control; additionally, he served as a member of the IEEE’s Advisory Board, as well as the Spectrum Magazine editorial Board. He spent his retirement between Cherryfield, ME, and Tuscon, AZ, where he was the oldest member of the University of Arizona Community Chorus.


He leaves a brother, Dr. Alvin Eden, NYC, NY; five children, Abigail Eden of Cherryfield, ME; Susanna Eden of Tucson, AZ; Mark D. Eden of Taos, NM; Shirley H. McDaniel, Venice, FL; and John W. Hartle, Juneau, AK; and seven grandchildren.


With the family's permission, information from this published obituary was included in this report. Photo courtesy of Abby Eden.