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Robert Rathbone, MIT professor emeritus, dies at 95

Writer and editor helped shape Institute’s humanities program, taught skills for communicating science and technology.
Robert R. Rathbone, MIT professor emeritus in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, passed away in Brunswick, Maine, on Feb. 23. He was 95.

RRR, as he was fondly known in the former Department of Humanities, was a prolific author of communication textbooks and articles, and helped develop the field of professional communication studies in the 1950s. He was one of the founders and the first director of MIT's writing program in 1976, and he worked extensively with faculty throughout the Institute to integrate communication instruction into the undergraduate science and engineering curriculum.

A 1939 graduate of Middlebury College, Rathbone was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he served as a communications officer from 1942-46 in the Commander, Destroyers, Atlantic Fleet at Casco Bay, Maine, eventually becoming the director of the Officers Communication School. In 1948, after earning a master's in English at Harvard University, he was hired by then-professor Jay Forrester as a technical writer in the Digital Computer Laboratory for Project Whirlwind at MIT. There, he edited research papers, developed a speaking clinic and wrote public information notes, including co-authoring a script on the digital computer that served as the basis for a feature on Edward R. Murrow's “See It Now” television series.  

Along with fellow writer-editor Joseph Ulman, Rathbone inaugurated the teaching of professional engineering communication in the Department of Humanities and collaborative communication instruction in the School of Engineering. He was appointed assistant professor of English in the Department of Humanities in 1953, promoted to associate professor in 1957, and then to professor of technical writing in 1969. He was the head of publications for Division 6 of Lincoln Laboratory from 1953-56 and the writer/editor for MIT’s Division of Sponsored Research from 1956-67. From 1953-78, he also served as the director of a popular summer program, Communicating Technical Information, which drew an international attendance. 

Rathbone was the author and co-author of several volumes on professional communication, including A Writer's Guide for Engineers and Scientists (1962) and the popular Communicating Technical Information (1972). He retired in 1979 and lived for many years in New Hampshire and then Maine, where he devoted himself to his pastimes of working in local historical societies, bird watching, painting and ham radio operation.

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