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Rosenblith receives Okawa Prize for work in biomedical engineering

Institute Professor Emeritus Walter A. Rosenblith has been awarded the Okawa Prize, presented annually to persons who have made outstanding contributions to research, technological development and business management in the information and telecommunications fields.

The announcement was made today at a news conference in San Francisco.

The prize, established in 1992 by the Okawa Foundation for Information and Telecommunications, carries a certificate, a gold medal and a 10 million yen cash award (about $90,000). Japanese winners have been named since the prize's inception, joined by recipients from the US since 1996. The Japanese winner this year is Nobuaki Kumagai, former president and professor emeritus of Osaka University.

The citation on Professor Rosenblith's award will say: "For outstanding and pioneering contributions to the progress of biomedical engineering, especially the use of 'on line' computer analysis of brain activity, and to auditory biophysics as well as to the promotion of international scientific cooperation." Professor and Mrs. Rosenblith plan to attend the awards ceremony in Tokyo on November 25.

Professor Rosenblith, the fourth Okawa Prize winner from the United States, came to the United States in 1939 on a scientific mission for a professor in Paris. While he was here, Nazi Germany invaded France and his return was out of the question. Since Professor Rosenblith, who is Jewish, had not entered the country as an immigrant, he was prohibited from working. To remain here, he accepted a graduate fellowship at UCLA, where he met and married the former Judy Olcott Francis, now a professor emerita of psychology at Wheaton College. They have been married for 58 years.

He taught physics at UCLA and the South Dakota School of Mines and was a research associate at the Harvard University Psychoacoustic Laboratory before joining the MIT faculty in 1951. He soon established the Laboratory of Communications Biophysics in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, a pioneer in online computer analysis of bioelectric signals. He was professor of communications biophysics in electrical engineering before being named an Institute Professor in 1975 (emeritus since 1984). This title is bestowed by MIT's faculty only on scholars of unusual distinction.

Professor Rosenblith served as chair of the MIT faculty from 1967-69, associate provost from 1969-71 and provost from 1971-80. As provost during Jerome Weisner's tenure as president of MIT, he played a central role in developing the health sciences and biomedical engineering disciplines at MIT, as well as in the establishment of the program for Science, Technology and Society. He also was active in forging MIT's collaboration with other universities and medical institutions.

Respected internationally as a statesman of science, Professor Rosenblith is one of only a handful of scholars who are members of all the academies in the National Academy of Sciences complex -- the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine (charter member). In 1982 he was elected Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, a post he held until 1986. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Born in Austria in 1913, Professor Rosenblith studied in Berlin, Lausanne, Paris and Bordeaux. He holds French degrees in communications engineering from the University of Bordeaux (1936), and from the Ecole Superieure d'Electricite, Paris (1937).

His early work in hearing led Professor Rosenblith to collaborate with faculty members of the Harvard Medical School in the formation of the Eaton Peabody Laboratory for Auditory Physiology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Professor Rosenblith was appointed research associate in otology in 1957 and a lecturer in otology and otolaryngology in 1969 at the Harvard Medical School. He is editor of two MIT Press volumes, Processing Neuroelectric Data and Sensory Communication, and author of numerous papers in a broad range of scientific journals.

In 1982 President Mitterrand of France named Professor Rosenblith to be a "Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur" for his services at MIT and elsewhere on behalf of intellectual and scientific exchanges between the United States and France. In 1989 he was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt medal. In 1992 the National Academy of Sciences established an international lecture series in his honor.

Professor Rosenblith has received honorary ScD degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (1976), the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (1980), Brandeis University (1988) and the University of Miami (1992). He was awarded the Doutor Honoris Causa from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 1976, the year in which he was designated an honorary alumnus by the MIT Alumni Association.

MIT has awarded Walter A. Rosenblith graduate fellowships to students in all five MIT schools since 1997-98. The $7.5 million allocated for 50 fellowships was provided from a fund created by the MIT Corporation's Executive and Investment Committees.

The Walter A. Rosenblith Professorship in neuroscience was established in 1994 and is held by Dr. Ann M. Graybiel of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, an internationally respected neuroscientist.

Previous Okawa Prize winners from the US were Professor Emeritus Lotfi A. Zadeh (1996) and University Professor Emeritus John R. Whinnery (1997), both from the University of California-Berkeley, and Professor Lewis M. Branscomb of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government (1998).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 10, 1999.

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