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John Wyatt, longtime MIT professor and cofounder of Boston Retinal Implant Project, dies at 69

Dedicated researcher was a circuits expert developing a retinal implant to help the blind see.
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John Wyatt
John Wyatt
Photo: Boston Retinal Implant Project

John Wyatt ’68, who served as a professor of electrical engineering for 36 years, passed away at home in the company of his family on Wednesday, Feb. 3. He was 69.

Wyatt was a devoted researcher who spent decades developing retinal implants to restore sight to people affected by age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, the two leading causes of blindness worldwide. An expert in circuits, his work focused on developing a chip that could be implanted in the retina to transmit visual information to the optic nerve.

A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Wyatt received a BS from MIT in 1968, an MS from Princeton University 1970, and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1979, all in electrical engineering. He joined the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) faculty in 1979, and retired from MIT in June 2015.

Wyatt was a driven researcher who pursued big ideas. In 1989, he cofounded the Boston Retinal Implant Project with Joseph Rizzo of the Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where he led the engineering team. Their group was the first to use microfabricated electrode arrays to electrically stimulate the human retina. Wyatt and Rizzo also cofounded Bionic Eye Technologies, which is working to commercialize their work to help the blind.

Their prosthetic design uses a camera embedded in a pair of glasses worn by the user to “see.” The camera then transmits visual information to a chip embedded in the retina, with the goal of restoring enough sight that a user might be able to find a door in a room, or walk down the street without the aid of a cane.

More recent advances in microfabrication and packaging made by their team led to the development of a prosthetic with the largest number of individually-controllable stimulation channels of any neural prosthetic, an advance that could allow a substantially greater level of vision to be obtained. 

“I said, that sounds really like science fiction. I spent about three months trying to think about why it couldn’t be done, and I really couldn’t find a reason it couldn’t be done,” Wyatt remembered about his reaction to the implant’s concept in a 2012 video. “So I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot,’ and I’ve been at it for 23 years.”

Wyatt did his first research on the retina during his graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, in the lab of Professor Frank Werblin. His doctoral dissertation included a study of how circuits could be used to model forces and flows in biological processes, and he developed this work further during his postdoctoral work at the Medical College of Virginia.

In 1990, Wyatt was appointed EECS's first Adler Scholar. Named for Richard B. Adler, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and a friend of Wyatt’s, the appointment allows MIT faculty to take a class for one semester as a student.

In an article about the Adler Scholar program published the same year, The New York Times described Wyatt’s delight at the chance to be a student again: “I don't want to be a research supervisor particularly. I want to be a researcher." He enrolled in 6.866 (Machine Vision), a course taught by Berthold K.P. Horn.

In 1998 the Retinitis Pigmentosa International Foundation awarded him the Jules Stein Living Tribute Award. 

“John devoted his research to improving the quality of life for millions of people affected by blindness,” wrote David Perreault, associate department head of EECS, in an email to faculty. “He will be long remembered by the many colleagues, students, and patients whose lives he touched.”

Wyatt is survived by his wife, Christie Baxter; his daughter, Julia Wyatt; and stepson Andrew Cook, all of Sudbury; and his brother James Wyatt and nephew Timothy Wyatt, both of Berlin, Germany.

A funeral service for Wyatt will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 11 a.m. at the First Parish Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Calling hours will be the previous evening, Monday, Feb. 8, from 5 to 8 p.m., at the Duckett Funeral Home in Sudbury.

Press Mentions

Boston Globe

John Wyatt, who served as an MIT professor for 36 years and was known for his work developing retinal implants, died on Feb. 3, reports Bryan Marquard for The Boston Globe. Marquard writes that Wyatt helped found the field of retinal prosthetic research, which was aimed at restoring “sight to those diagnosed with macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.”

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