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Peter Elias of computer science is dead at 78


Professor Emeritus Peter Elias, a pioneer in the field of computer science, died of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease last Friday in the living room of his Cambridge home, surrounded by his family. He was 78 years old.

"Many of us will remember Peter as a quiet and unassuming colleague who contributed a great deal to education and research at MIT," said Victor W. Zue, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science. "He was one of the most energetic emeritus professors I know, coming to work almost every day and continuing to advise undergraduate students."

"In addition to being a distinguished researcher and educator, Peter was one of MIT's great citizens," said Professor John V. Guttag, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). "He will be sorely missed."

Elias (S.B. 1944), was born on Nov. 23, 1923 in Brunswick, N.J., the son of an engineer in Thomas A. Edison's laboratory. He was a member of the MIT faculty from 1953-91, at which time he assumed emeritus rank and became a senior lecturer.

Elias attended Swarthmore College for two years before transferring to MIT in 1942. Upon receiving the S.B. in business and engineering management in 1944, he enlisted in the United States Navy and served as a radio technician instructor. After he was discharged in 1946 with the rank of electronic technician's mate first class, he earned a master of arts, a master's degree in engineering and science, and a Ph.D. from from Harvard University.

Elias joined the MIT faculty in 1953 as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1956 and a full professor in 1960, when he also became the youngest person to head EECS (he served until 1966). He later was acting associate head of computer science from 1981-83 when Professor Joel Moses headed the department.

"Peter was a great theorist as well as a wonderful citizen of the EECS department," said Moses, who visited Elias shortly before he died. "He had a remarkable ability to recognize the best aspects of every person and issue. I shall miss him greatly."

After serving as the first Cecil H. Green Professor of Electrical Engineering from 1970-72, Elias was named the Edwin S. Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering in 1974. He joined the Laboratory for Computer Science in 1976. He conducted research in infor-

mation theory and its applications to problems in communication, data processing and computation in the EECS department and at the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

In recent years, Elias took on the responsibility of the EECS colloquium. "When he became ill, his son Daniel told me that he was particularly concerned about not being able to discharge his responsibilities," said Zue. "This tells you the kind of person he was."

Elias was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. He also was a member of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, the Association for Computing Machinery, Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi and Eta Kappa Nu.

Elias served on the President's Science Advisory Committee on Computers in Higher Education, as a member of the Education and Accreditation Committee of the Engineer's Council on Professional Development, as chairman of the Information Theory Group of the IEEE, and as a member of the IEEE Fellow Award Committee and of the IEEE Standards Committee.

He was one of three founding editors of the journal Information and Control (now Information and Computation) in 1957 and was a member of its editorial board until his death. He has also served on the editorial boards of the MIT Press, the Proceedings of the IEEE and the IEEE Spectrum.

Institute Professor Emeritus Morris Halle, a longtime friend, recalled Professor Elias as an engaging conversationalist with a vast range of knowledge. "He was helluva listener and an extraordinarily nice fellow," said Halle, a linguist. "I'm totally saddened. I felt very close to him."

Elias held visiting professorships at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967-68, the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London in 1975-76 and Harvard in 1983-84.

Elias is survived by two sons, Daniel of Lincoln and Paul of Cambridge; a daughter, Ellen Elias-Bursac of Cambridge; a sister, Barbara Elias of New York and Chilmark, MA; and six grandchildren. His wife of 43 years, Marjorie (Forbes), died in 1993.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. at the American Academy of Arts and Science, 200 Beacon St., Cambridge. The family requests that memorial donations be made to the Greater Boston Food Bank, 99 Atkinson St., Boston, MA 02118-2701.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2001.

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