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Retired MIT Professor Rosenblith dies at 88; Pioneered use of computers to study brain

Walter A. Rosenblith
Walter A. Rosenblith
Photo / Donna Coveney

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.- MIT Institute Professor Emeritus and former Provost Walter A. Rosenblith, who pioneered the use of computers and mathematical models in the study of the brain as a biophysical information handling system, died of complications resulting from prostate cancer Wednesday (May 1) in the Miami Heart Institute of Miami Beach, Fla. He was 88 years old.

Upon learning of Rosenblith's death, MIT President Charles M. Vest said, "Walter is one of the handful of people who truly defined MIT as it is today." Vest added, "I have thought often of Walter's unstinting dedication to science as an open, international undertaking. That too was one of his great legacies."

Professor Rosenblith's career included significant accomplishments in the sciences, technology, education, international cooperation and public policy. Rosenblith was one of a small number of scholars elected to all three of the National Academies - the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. He was elected Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences in 1982, a post he held until 1986. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science.

President Emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences Frank Press said: "Walter Rosenblith's contributions as a scientist, engineer, and humanist to scholarship, education and international cooperation are no less than monumental. That he also was a distinguished researcher adds to the luster of his career."

Rosenblith's deep interest in science, technology and society grew, in part, out of his early studies of the effects of noise on human beings. This research, he said, "alerted me to a number of social problems that come from the incautious use of technology." He helped found the Program in Science, Technology and Society and later joined it.

Rosenblith had a long and distinguished tenure at MIT, helping to shape it throughout turbulent times and helping to ensure its world class status. He joined the faculty in 1951 as an associate professor of communications biophysics in the Department of Electrical Engineering (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science since 1975). He was elevated to full professor in 1957 and named Institute Professor in 1975. He was elected by his colleagues as chair of the faculty from 1967 to 1969.

As MIT's associate provost from 1969 to 1971 and provost from 1971 to 1980, he played a central role in developing the health sciences and biomedical engineering disciplines at the Institute and in forging MIT's collaboration with other universities and medical institutions, and in fostering greater attention to the interplay among science, technology and society. While associate provost, he was also acting director of the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies.

In 1994, MIT established a chair in his honor. Ann M. Graybiel of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the first Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience, still holds the chair. Fifty Walter A. Rosenblith graduate fellowships were created in 1997, and Rosenblith was particularly pleased that they covered all of the schools at MIT. At the time of his death, Rosenblith was working on a book about MIT's former President and his dear friend Jerome B. Wiesner.

In the words of Howard Johnson, MIT's president from 1966 to 1971: "Walter Rosenblith was a noble academic whose enthusiastic participation for 50 years in MIT life as Institute Professor, faculty chair, provost, and, most of all as a rare human being will leave an indelible mark on the Institute. Those of us who were privileged to work with him will remember his many contributions and especially his deep insight and understanding of MIT and the culture of science, technology and ethics that pervades this institution."

Born in Vienna, Austria on Sept. 21, 1913, Rosenblith studied in Vienna, Berlin, Lausanne, Paris and Bordeaux. He held degrees in communications engineering from the University of Bordeaux (1936) and the Ecole Superieure d'Electricite, Paris (1937). In 1939 he came to the United States to study the effects of industrial noise on human beings. When the outbreak of World War II prevented his return to France, he conducted research and taught physics at NYU and UCLA, where he met and married Judy Olcott of Manhattan Beach, Calif., his wife of 60 years.

From 1943 to 1947 Rosenblith was a member of the physics faculty at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. In 1947, he became a research fellow at Harvard University's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory. While there he became increasingly involved in psychophysics and neurophysiology. He was, in his own words, "sucked into the brain through the ear."

His early work in hearing led 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. Rosenblith was appointed research associate in otology (1957-69) then lecturer in otology and otolaryngology at the Harvard Medical School. He was editor of the MIT Press volumes "Processing Neuroelectric Data and Sensory Communication" and author of numerous papers in a broad range of scientific journals.

He served on many technical committees and advisory boards, executive committees, and as a member of several academic societies. Rosenblith was fond of quoting a Harvard colleague as saying, "For Rosenblith, talking is the easiest form of breathing."

He used that capacity in part through lecturing widely in the United States and abroad. He was Inaugural Lecturer at India's Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (Bombay) and Weizmann Lecturer at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, in 1962. He taught in General Electric's Modern Engineering Course (1964-68), was a visiting professor at the Technical University, Berlin, during the summers of 1965 and 1966, and at the Institute of Biophysics, University of Rio de Janeiro in 1971, 1973 and 1976.

Rosenblith served on the International Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China (1977-86), and was named a consulting professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in 1988. He served on the Board of Governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Brandies University Board of Trustees. From 1978-86 he was a member of the President's Board on Foreign Scholarships (Fulbright), serving as its chair in 1980-81, and as a member of the USIA Advisory Panel on International Educational Exchange from 1982-86.

President Francois Mitterrand of France named Rosenblith a "Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur" in 1982 for his services at MIT and elsewhere on behalf of intellectual and scientific exchanges between the U.S. and France. In 1989 he was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt medal. He was awarded the Okawa Prize in 1999 for outstanding contributions to research.

U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) noted: "Walter Rosenblith was one of the most influential leaders of the international scientific community during the last 50 years. From his service as Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and his participation with the World Bank in strengthening Chinese universities after the Cultural Revolution, to his awards like the French Legion of Honor, the German Alexander von Humboldt Medal and the esteemed Japanese Okawa prize, Walter Rosenblith built bridges to the world through science. I am grateful for his personal support and friendship."

U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said: "I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Walter Rosenblith. He was a brilliant scientist who devoted his life to developing groundbreaking scientific research He will be missed."

Rosenblith received honorary Sc.D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (1976), the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (1980), Brandeis (1988) and the University of Miami (1992). He was awarded the Doctor 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 Association of Alumni and Alumnae.

Rosenblith is survived by his wife, Judy, of Marstons, Mass. and Miami, a professor emerita of psychology at Wheaton College; a daughter, Sandy, of Chevy Chase, Md.; a son, Ron, of McLean, Va.; a brother, Eric, of Newton, Mass.; a grandson, Justin Borysenko, and two granddaughters, Gillet and Charlton. Burial will be private; contributions may be made in his name to MIT for the Wiesner book project or to the Union of Concerned Scientists. A memorial service will be scheduled at MIT.

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