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Professor emeritus Alvin Drake dies at 70

Alvin W. Drake
Alvin W. Drake

Alvin W. Drake, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science who was respected among colleagues and students alike for the vitality of his teaching and the vigor of his research, died of cancer at a hospice near his Falmouth home on Sunday, Oct. 30. He was 70.

Drake, a native of Bayonne, N.J., specialized in decision analysis, applied probability, applications of operations research to public systems and blood and organ banking.

Drake's best-known MIT course, Probabilistic Systems Analysis (6.041), was "legendary," said Richard Larson, Mitsui Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Engineering Systems. "He taught students to think in terms of basic principles, in the MIT way."

Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe (S.B. 1968), who was a student of Drake's, called him the "epitome of the MIT professor." Metcalfe even gave Drake partial credit for igniting the intellectual fuse that eventually led Metcalfe to Ethernet in 1973.

Drake's own enthusiasm for the Institute and his devotion to the "MIT way" were leavened by his awareness of the toll of competitiveness on self-esteem.

In a 1993 essay, "Notes on Being at a Great, but Greatly Intimidating Place," Drake encouraged students and faculty not to let others' brilliance make them "less special, less bright or less alive."

Drake himself was willing to take risks, such as launching MIT and the then-fledgling Operations Research Center (ORC) into the analysis of public systems.

"This pioneering work led to major research in blood banking, airport operations and urban public safety. It put MIT ORC on the map of public sector operations research," Larson said.

Drake's particular interests in operations research included blood banking systems and public attitudes and decision processes with regard to blood donation. He served as a director of the Red Cross Northeast Regional Blood Program.

Drake came to MIT as an instructor in 1960 and taught continuously, except for service in the U.S. Army Signal Corps (1962-1964) and sabbaticals at Harvard and Berkeley, until his retirement at the end of 1996.

He served as associate director of the Operations Research Center from 1966 to 1977 and was promoted to full professor in 1973.

He wrote the classic text "Fundamentals of Probability Theory" (1967) and co-authored "The American Blood Supply" (1982) with Stan N. Finkelstein, senior research scientist, Engineering Systems Division, and Harvey M. Sapolsky, professor of political science.

In his later years, Drake worked with students in the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and in the Leaders for Manufacturing Program (LFM).

"As a mentor, teacher and advisor to students in the LFM program, he touched students in the same way he touched me as a student in the 1960s," said Donald Rosenfield, director of the LFM Fellows Program.

In 1991, Drake received the School of Engineering's Amar Bose Award for excellence in teaching.

Joel Moses, former dean of the School of Engineering, said at the time that one of Drake's "many strengths is the ability to re-create, in a class of nearly 200 students, the atmosphere of a class of 20."

In 1995, Drake was appointed Ford Professor of Engineering. Moses noted then Drake's "innovative teaching of applied probability and his mentoring of graduate teaching assistants."

The next year, on the eve of his last session teaching 6.041, Drake received a unique honor.

Speaking for four decades of MIT students, the MIT Chorallaries sang an a cappella verse they composed for their beloved probability professor:

"Professor Drake's retiring, we hate to see him go
He always has supported us -- he's even come to shows!
We've sung here each and every term and had a lot of fun
As the official a cappella group of Drake's 6.041!"

Drake received four degrees from MIT: the S.B. and S.M. in 1958, the E.E. in 1961 and the Sc.D. in 1962.

Drake married Julie Atwood in 1995. He is survived by his wife; stepson Todd C. Wheelden and his wife, Babette, of Kents Hill, Maine; two grandsons, Drake and Fenix Wheelden; and a brother, Jerome, of Somerville, Mass.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Popponesset Inn in Mashpee, Mass.

A celebration of life service will be held at a later date at MIT.

Donations in Drake's honor may be sent to the Mary McCarthy Hospice House, 270 Communication Way, Hyannis, MA 02601; MSPCA, 1577 Falmouth Road, Centerville, MA 02632; or Big Brother Big Sister Foundation, 5 Mear Road, Holbrook, MA 02343.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 2, 2005 (download PDF).

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