Monday, September 12, 2011

If you want to attend the memorial for Jerry, this is just about your last chance to RSVP. Please email me before Sept 14th to tell me who you are (especially in relation to Jerry), whether you want to talk, how many people you'd like to come with you, and any physical or sensory accommodations you might need.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jerry's "Elegy to Building 20"

Elegy for Building 20

Place of work is part of mind,
Memories imprint the wall,
Shabby artifacts recall
Crystal concepts, well-defined.

Down the halls of empty wings
Expurgated rooms extend;
When the wrecker comes, they end,
Broken down to formless things.

I'm not Faust, and will not pray
Time to take the time to dwell;
Status quo is gait of hell.
let those rooms be done away.

Academic monies buy
Only what it pays to know;
Newer fabrications grow
Where the older legends lie.

As the building comes apart,
Driven by a subtler trend,
Means that justify and end
Subsidize the wrecker's art

Past, reknown for past renown,
Cannot generate returns,
Just the interest it earns.
Tear that tattered engram down.


Brilliant ideas

Michael Brill has blogged an account of his first experiment in Jerry's lab.

Articles about Jerry

I've also started an online collection of articles about Jerry. I only have three up so far, but I have a huge collection of newspaper and magazine articles that I will start scanning and adding as I have the time.

Thanks to Leslie Lawrence and Sam Bertie for the articles already posted.

Another website

It has taken a while, but I have finally gotten control of The Lettvin Group website. This will let me post some documents and photos that I haven't yet been able to link to nicely. David Atkin and Bill Saidel sent some pictures and you will find links to their collections here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Memorial News

Yesterday I sent out information on the memorial for Jerry. If you wish to attend the memorial and have not received an email from me about it, then either you are not on my list, or my contact information for you is out of date.

If you wish to attend, please send me an email with your contact information (and perhaps a brief note about the intersection of your life with Jerry's) and I will put you on the list for future notifications, and an invitation to which you will need to RSVP.

The event will be a full day alternating between scientific talks and personal reminiscences about Jerry. Recorded recitals of Theodore Lettvin, Jerry's brother, will be part of the event too.

So please get in touch if you were a student, colleague, enemy or arch-enemy, especially if you would like to present a talk or memory and even if you cannot attend, but would like to be notified when materials from the memorial are available.

The memorial will be:

Sunday 9/25:
MIT Room 32-123,
Cambridge Mass (site of old Building 20)
from 0900-1615

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More on the debate

Wonderful seeing the Lettvin-Leary poster you posted. For many of us, that debate was one of the touchstones of that era. One of my last wonderful memories of Jerry -- aside from the several random run-ins I had into him and Maggie enjoying a coffee at the outdoor Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square -- was his attendance at the screening of a tape of that debate at my class's 35th reunion, June '05. It was wonderful to listen to Jerry's reminiscence of the planning for and behind-the-scenes at the debate -- a treat for the content and for the obvious pleasure Jerry took in the memories and our company.

I've attached a photo of Jerry at that screening. 
(David's note: Sitting next to Jerry are my son Mo and his wife Lindsey.) 

No surprise, given our times, also found an on-line video of that, very entertaining, debate at:

as well as copy of the MIT Tech issue reporting on the debate:

Sam Bertie

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Embodiments of Mind

For those who are interested, three of Jerry's papers:

  • Effects of Strychnine with Special Reference to Spinal Afferent Fibres
  • Reflex Inhibition by Dorsal Root Interaction
  • What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain

are reprinted in Warren McCulloch's Embodiments of Mind. Jerry also contributed the introduction to this edition.

The original poster!

Jon Chosiad has sent us a real treasure!

"... a jpeg rendition of the original MIT Lecture Series Committee (LSC*) poster which I and Mike Oman worked on 40-some-odd years ago announcing the upcoming debate between your father, Dr Jerome Lettvin and the notorious Dr Timothy Leary. The lecture was held at MIT's Kresge's auditorium. If I can get the jpeg cleaned up and no one objects I would forward it to Dr Lettvin's memorial blog or wherever you thought appropriate.

The Cast of Characters receiving this email are (these first two are the sons of the recently deceased Dr Lettvin); the last 3 and myself were under-graduate residents of MIT's Burton House dormitory, 5th floor, overlooking the [then] not-so-scenic Charles River:
  • Jonathan Lettvin - Software Consultant, AER - I worked with Jonathan at Lotus in the late 80's 
  • David Lettvin - a New England based essayist, novelist, and historian, a classmate at Commonwealth School in the '60's. 
  • Larry Stelmack - Electronics and Computer engineer turned computer-aided artist; a dorm-mate who might be willing to restore the poster to its original grandeur if he ever gets the time. 
  • Richard Stern - CMU PhD and Professor in a multitude of auditory-related subjects, musician, harpsichordist and the archivist who saved a copy of the poster for 30 years. 
  • Mike Oman - another dorm-mate and collaborator on the original poster, whereabouts currently unknown to me. I am guessing at his e-dress. 
I and the ravages of time have left the original silk-screening in its present sad condition. The faux-Peter Max style font (I call it "MIT Psychedelic") hides the actual announcement in the leaves and fruit of the tree. It says: DR JEROME LETTVIN, DR TIMOTHY LEARY, LSC* 8PM WEDNESDAY MAY 3 KRESGE $1/2

*LSC stands for Lecture Series Committee (not a mis-spelling of Dr Leary's favorite recreation). LSC was the producer of all MIT-sponsored extra-curricular movies, lectures, plays etc. Kresge was the auditorium where the event was held. The stylized yellow oval in the lower right was the logo for CHOMAN, Mike and my artistic collaborative. "

Jon Chosiad

Administrative stuff

Almost all of Jerry's papers are being cataloged for archiving at the American Philosophical Institute in Philadelphia (Warren McCulloch's papers are there too). However, I am also developing an online archive. Any materials, photos, tapes of lectures, transcripts etc. whether digitized or not, will be gratefully accepted and put in this online archive.

Tomorrow I will publish a list of names of some of Jerry's contacts for whom I have not been able to find a valid email address. If you are listed, or know someone who is listed, please contact me with the information.

Stories or memories of Jerry are accepted and republished on this blog with the name of the submitter, but unless you specifically request it, your addresses either physical or email will not be divulged.


The genesis of the title

I have loved and admired both Maggie and Jerry for many decades and was able to visit them last summer and share a token 90th birthday cake with him (I reached 90 last fall). Jerry and I worked and published together - his ideas tested in my axon voltage clamp equipment.

They visited me in Woods Hole from time to time. On one occasion they brought the manuscript of his most famous publication to me, then a guest editor of the Proceedings of the IRE. I read and accepted the paper as is but rejected the original title (by Pitts or McCulloch) and insisted that he give me his title. He immediately responded with "What the frog's eye tells the frog's brain". I struck out the original title and wrote in Jerry's title and sent it off to the press. The result was that this paper became widely known by almost all neuroscientists in spite of the fact that this journal was not a place they would normally look; nevertheless it has been widely reproduced on the web.

John Moore

Abject apologies

Sorry! Mea culpa. The entire month of July just slipped past without me noticing. I will not catalog the distractions but merely say that they existed.

There will be several posts today to try to bring things back into alignment.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A bit of a gap!

Things have been a bit complicated recently, but I'll start catching up with some new photos and posts over the next few days.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Memorial date set!

Gill Pratt has informed me that Jerry's memorial will be:

Sunday, September 25, 2011
MIT Room 32-123 

Which means that it's on the old site of Building 20.

The present plan is for a interleaved mix of technical talks of reminiscences.

Monday, June 6, 2011


I remember Jerry coming out to Dad's summer camp, Homestead, back in the early 70's. He and Maggie would come visit, and sometimes Jerry would lecture. I had generally disliked the morning lectures, because I felt that was time taken away from a summer day that should be spent swimming, doing some craftsy activity at a workshop, or just watching grass and flowers grow. Jerry's lectures changed all that.

I will never forget that crisp summer morning decades ago. Jerry stood under those tall pines bordering Moose Pond, and drew magical parallels between Medusa and octopus from the sea. Sitting next to a sparkling boulder covered in mica and lichen, Jerry opened my eyes to everlasting truths behnd stories that are so often casually dismissed as "myths."

For example, Medusa was famous for her head of hair that was made of living snakes. The octopus has such a feature attached to it. Medusa lived a life of hermitage, as do octopi. They blend and disappear into their surroundings, appearing only long enough to catch prey or move to another hiding place. Medusa did not seek the company of others, people came to her. This is the way of the octopus as well. It camouflages itself into its surroundings, and food swims, crawls, or lands in the octopus's hiding spot. Medusa was known for turning those who gazed upon her into stone. The octopus stuns its visitors, renders them immobile, and devours them. When threatened, the octopus disappears in a cloud of ink, like a legendary assassin.

When Jerry's lecture was over, I knew that Medusa had not been slain. It was an ugly rumor in mythical form. I knew Medusa was alive and well - living a life of self chosen, blissful solitude, in the salty depths of the sea.

Every time Jerry came out to visit, I would toss whatever plans I might have had for that day. Instead, I would go do something REALLY exciting . I would plant myself among his loyal listeners and immerse myself in the magic, the brilliance, the gentleness, and the light that always seemed to radiate from his words, his smile, and his wisdom.

When I grow up, I want to be like that.

-- Cori (Ertha) Fukuchi

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Just so you know

I still don't have confirmation of a memorial date (but at this point I'm guessing that it will be September).

Anyone who sends me a Jerry story for the blog will be put on the notification list and will be contacted when plans gel.

A Mensch

Over and above everything, Jerry was a mensch.

There is a Yiddish saying: "When a mensch leaves the world, the world says he left too soon." It's no wonder that we all miss him so dearly.

I find it impossible to think about Jerry without hearing his voice as clearly as if he were sitting next to me. He is pronouncing his customary valediction (in Yiddish) with a depth of sincerity, an intensity, and a sprinkle of joy which are the unmistakable reflection of a true mensch.

Whether our encounter was brief or extended, whether we had merely touched base or had solved the world's problems, as we parted, he would always establish a connection directly with my eyes and, with a warm smile, wish me:

"Mit gluk oon mazel!" (With happiness and good fortune!).

-- Richard Kramer


I used to see Jerry and Maggie on campus together in the 1970s, with his large belly and her extreme fitness making such a contrast. For some reason my father-in-law knew Jerry, undoubtedly through academic connections over the years. They were both brilliant across many subjects and in love with arguing, but my father-in-law was not a mensch, as Jerry has been widely described.

Before reading the Boston Globe obituary, I didn't realize that pianist Theodore Lettvin was Jerry's brother. Theodore was at Cleveland Institute of Music when I was growing up, and I certainly knew the name. Maybe I heard him perform in Cleveland, or maybe I knew classmates who had studied with him.

-- Debbie Levey

Placing out

I'll never forget my first exposure to Jerry. It was orientation week in 1984, and a number of us were in the Concourse lounge debating whether to place out of first semester calculus and physics. Some people had taken AP classes in high school and had scored high enough on the AP exams to take credit for first semester classes. Jerry, and other Concourse advisors, insisted that we not place out of these classes because nearly EVERYTHING we were going to learn at M.I.T. had foundations in these subjects. It was imperative that we have solid understanding of calculus and physics. 

Jerry pointed out that there were two possibilities. The first was we already knew everything in these subjects and these classes would be easy for us. "Lord knows," he said. "You could stand to have some easy classes your first year at M.I.T." The second was that we DIDN'T know everything, and it would therefore be a very good thing that we took the classes to get that solid foundation.

One girl was not to be dissuaded. She was adamant about skipping the classes.

"Why do you want to place out of them?" Jerry asked.

"Because then maybe I could get started on my other classes and then graduate early and save my parents some money," the girl replied.

Jerry leaned back in his chair with a contemplative expression on his face. "Think of your parents," he responded as he took a long drag on his cigarette. "As a natural resource, to be used to the fullest extent possible."

I elected not to place out of those subjects.

--Joel Simansky

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jerry and the ‘miracle transistor’

For his experiments on the brains of various creatures, Jerry used his own unique design of ultra-high impedance voltage probes so a to subject said creatures to absolutely negligible currents. While he was describing some of these experiments to me – we saw him and Maggie often – he happened to mention that the critical component of his simple circuitry was a transistor from Transitron, my then employer.

Of the two genius friends of mine at that time – Jerry, of course, was one – the other was the late Nick deWolfe, indubitably the most brilliant semiconductor device guy on the planet. (On leaving Transitron, a story that deserves blogging, he and (non-techie) Alex d’Arbelof, founded Teradyne, a company alive and thriving still.)

When I told Nick that a friend of mine, Jerry Lettvin of MIT, was using Transitron transistors to make probes with 10-to-the-God-only-knows-what-power ohms impedance, Nick proclaimed this feat impossible – not just improbable, mark you – to achieve with our then actually quite crummy transistors. So off I went back to Jerry and told him Nick’s reaction. Jerry’s rebuttal was quite tangible: he demonstrated his probes and showed the data validating the impedance values thereof.

At this point, I’d had enough of acting as go-between, and requested that these two geniuses (genii?) meet, probes and all. They did, at a meeting from which Nick emerged chastened and baffled. “My God” said he: “that guy’s a genius”. But I knew that….

-- Ed Mlavsky

Cats and Dogs

When we lived in Harvard Square, we had a beautiful and highly snobbish cat called Carruthers: aplomp was his middle name. He would coil himself around Jerry’s neck while he, Maggie, Sally and I strolled to a coffee shop in the Square. Carruthers would sit on a chair like ‘a real people’ and drink cream from a saucer. OK, he wasn’t an octopus, but he would only do his shoulder-draping act for Jerry.

On one of our weekend sojourns at their Vermont pad, their dog chomped on a porcupine in the middle of the night, impaling itself with numerous spikes which penetrated both his upper and his lower jaws. To say that said dog was not altogether happy stretches even a Brit’s gift for understatement. Luckily, a more or less local vet told us to bring him over, but to restrain him from his own frenzied and futile attempts at spike removal…. So off we went in the Model A Ford, Jerry driving on seemingly endless dirt roads in almost total darkness while I was in the backseat trying to keep that poor dog from self-destruction. By the time we arrived at the large and sadistic individual who claimed to be a vet, the dog and I were both close to extinction.

After the brutally extraction of the spikes, the sedated animal and I again cuddled up in the back of the car for the journey home. And so endeth another vacation night in beautiful Vermont.

Ed Mlavsky


I took a little time off from the blog, but I'll be catching up today.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Fat Abbot

The Fat Abbot was a literary magazine published by Jay Keyser. It was in the pages of that journal that Jerry's translations of the poetry of Christian Morgenstern appeared.

Jay has written an appreciation of Jerry's ability to translate German puns. It is a little long for a blog post so you can find it here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

An illuminating lesson

My story about one of his lasting insights came from a class with a lecture hall in which he passed around a clipboard with a pencil tied to a string. We all had to sign in for attendance documentation. 

Sometime near the end of the lecture, Jerry turned off the room lights and turned on the UV lights and everyone learned an indelible and 'glowing' lesson in contamination and ease of transmission of materials -- infectious or chemical -- because we each 'lit up' in everywhere we had touched, scratched, etc.! because the pencil had been coated with fluorescein dye!! 

This one 'trick' was such a great way to demonstrate this point.. never to be forgotten.

Jerry Abraham, MD (MIT '66)

The Chair

Maggie asked me to tell this story.

When Jerry was retired (you know that he would not have done so voluntarily) his retirement package and as a token of the institute's esteem and in honor of his many contributions, a black lacquer chair bearing the MIT emblem.

At about the same time, a janitor that he knew, who had worked at Tech for most of his life, also retired. He got his retirement package and as a token of the institute's esteem and in honor of his many contributions ... ummm ... nothing.

The chair Jerry sat in every day, leaning over his pad with a pen or sitting back with the ubiquitous cigarette fuming in his fingers ... that chair ... that was the one that MIT gave Maggie.

Jerry's chair was in the Janitor's living room.

Jerry the Moocher

In the 1950's and 1960's my father worked as a security guard at MIT in Bldg 20, and I can still remember him telling stories about Dr. Lettvin. He found him to be quite a character just as you said with his appearance and the condition of his office. He often didn't have any money with him and would borrow money from my father for his lunch!

My father had so much respect for him, not because he was so brilliant, but because he treated everyone the same, whether it was the most distinguished member of the faculty or a security guard on the campus.

Mary Fitzgerald

Get in touch


If you want to be notified about the memorial for Jerry. Please send your contact information (name, address or email, and perhaps a note about how you knew him) to me at:


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The F & T Deli

I am delighted that Marvin Fox got in touch. As one of the proprietors of the F & T Deli, his food fueled many of Jerry's theories. He writes:
"Jerry Lettvin was a wonderful man! He was a customer in my restaurant, the F & T Deli. In fact, there is a memorial plaque in Kendall Square about the restaurant. One of the paragraphs is: 
"Over the decades, the restaurant's counter and tables were filled with truck drivers, hardhats, MIT faculty and students, and tradespeople of all kinds. The conversation ranged from the Red Sox to the race tracks, from problems at construction sites, to how frogs see, to the origins of the universe." 
Jerry told me that the conclusion of this study "What the frog's eye tells the frog's brain" was formulated in my deli. He also wrote a dirge about Fox & Tishman. 
There's no pub
in the Hub -
only singles bars
and bistros run by hockey stars.

There's no fare
in the Square -
only Harvbard Yard
and clip-joints that take a credit card.

What they sell
at Lobdell
is recycled sludge
prepared to nourish, at best, a grudge.

Sky and school and spirit are gray -
Where can we eat in a civilized way?

Fox and Tishman, Tishman and Fox,
dealt us compassion with bagels and lox,
meatloaf with morals, lentils with leers -
they warped our palates as we bent their ears.
Execs and secs, jocks and crocks
lunched at leisure at Tishman and Fox

Now this bastion
has cashed in
The sagging ceiling, the flaked chrome
that gave us home
are no more to be.

Fox and Tishman
Fox and Tishman
Fox and Tishman

have been F'd by the "T."
(The F&T was closed to make room for an MBTA station.)
My favorite story has to do with his appearance on David Susskind's Show about popular college professors. Susskind was upset with Jerry because, unlike the other members of the panel, he was not wearing a jacket and tie (remember things were very different in those days).
He made this known and asked if this type of informal attire set a tone for his students. Your father replied that he was a fat man and he felt comfortable in an open short sleeve shirt. He then said that he did not care how his students dressed when they came to class; if they brought their girlfriends or boyfriends; or their sandwiches. 
He said, "I am only interested in their enjoying my class and getting something out of it."
The next week, when your he and mother came into the diner, I told him, to his surprise, that I had seen him on TV. I further said that I liked his reply except, when he said sandwiches, why didn't he say the sandwiches they got at the F & T? 
He laughed and said, "Marvin, if I had thought of it, I would have said that."

Monday, May 16, 2011

From Herb Lin

I just heard about Jerry's passing, and I grieve. As I recall, I took a humanities course from him, but my fondest memories of Jerry are outside of that class. As a graduate student, I had an office in Building 20, and I visited him a couple of times in his lab (in the 1970s). Jerry was the one who taught me how to forge signatures and also used to shout "Yellow Peril!!" every time he saw me (I'm Chinese.) I also recall that he taught a class how to hack Servend machines when the owner of the vending machines refused to believe that he had defeated their security mechanisms.

To square two promises made regarding student admissions to Concourse - one that early applicants would get priority over later ones and the other that students admitted to Concourse would be elected randomly -- he came up with the concept of a weighted lottery. Early applicants got two tickets, later ones got one. I've used that concept as the solution for all kinds of problems since I heard about that.

And yet -- I don't think he ever knew my name. Actually, it didn't matter - he was always willing to talk to me, he always said interesting things, and I always learned things from him whenever I spoke to him.

Even though I had not seen him for many years, I will miss his spirit. We are poorer for his passing, but celebrate the riches he gave us all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

From Humberto Maturana

Humberto was one of Jerry's colleagues on WTFETTFB (What the frogs eye tells the frog's brain) and a very dear friend. This photo was taken when he was working with Jerry.

He writes from Chile.

"I met Jerry when I was writting my Ph.D thesis at Harvard  May 1958. He came to the Biological Laboratories to give a seminar on the frog's (Rana pipiens) visual brain. I liked him and showed him my work. He liked it and he invited me to come to do a Post Doctoral work with him at MIT.
I mentioned his invitation to the the people of the Biological Laboratories and they said that I should not accept because he was very intelligent but very erratic. He would begin something but would not finish it. I wondered.  Yet I liked him, I liked his manner of thinking, his passion, his humanness, ... and I accepted his offer and went to work with him after my graduation. It was the best thing that I did for the rest of my life.
We became great friends. He accepted that I could have a small laboratory of my own in the sixth floor of a biology buildng where I worked alone in the mornings, to go to work together in the afternoon in his laboratory in the depatment of Electric Engeneering. At 1pm he would come to my little laboratory and invite me saying: "Come Humberto, who do you think that would be most annoyed with our discoveries of yesterday so that we go to tell them, to them?" So I would accompany him, a small fellow besides a big man discovering the wonderful things that they had done together.
Although there is much more to say this is all for the momment.
Jerry Lettvin was a great person, I admired him, learned from him and loved him. He was old in the right moment to die with dignity."
Humberto can be found at the website for his school "Matriztica."

Don't make me beg ...

Send me Jerry stories and photos!

Please give me explicit permission to put them on the blog within the email. Then I won't have to check back with you to make sure.

The Boston Globe's obituary

Find it here:

Globe Obit

Saturday, May 14, 2011

An Untitled Poem for Maggie

Whatever signs of age our years ensure
the states of love un-aged will yet endure,
and though our art and flesh are past their prime,
nothing in our bond can change with time.

Whichever of us goes, then none are gone;
there's no such thing as the surviving one.
whichever stays, the other's also there
but gives no indication of just where.

--Jerry Lettvin

From David Fish

Jerry Lettvin was legendary among the undergrads at MIT. Many of us heard of his powerful intellect, his capacity for scholarly invention and penetrating inquiry even before we knew what he did or his field of research. It was only much later, when I became involved as a graduate student with neurophysiology, that I began to understand when reading his work what he had accomplished.

Before that, however, I had a close encounter of the Lettvin kind in my senior year as an electrical engineering student. At MIT an undergraduate thesis project was required, and Jerry Lettvin sat on the review committee for my group of undergrads presenting early progress reports on our thesis work. I had done a reasonable amount of work and made enough progress to acquit myself acceptably when giving my first progress report. Not surprisingly at the first of any such sessions there were always those who were perhaps a little—or more than a little—behind in their work on their theses. Now I will have to say that the great Prof. Lettvin could hardly get himself bent out of shape just because some puny undergrad had come forward with a puny work product, but I was to learn that day what he might heap upon a bullshitter.

There was among my group of supplicants, a particular type of undergrad commonly seen in my day (then 1971)--the happy hippie slacker who might hide, under a dirty flannel shirt and long tangled locks (mine were not tangled) a stunning mind and piercing wit (one of my roommates comes to mind, who would ace his final exams in 20 minutes after an entire term of smoking weed and not knowing where the lecture hall for the class was—but that’s another story) but there was of course no way to tell by looking. Jerry Lettvin and his kind at the ‘tute probably had seen these and many other things come and go in their years of educating young people in their volatile years.

At one point, came time for one such young classmate of mine, let’s call him “Tom” to give his report. Of course, Tom had no papers, binders, books, folios—not so much as a pencil—with him, yet attempted to engage the committee—and Jerry Lettvin—on the cool ideas he had at least taken the trouble to conceive in the preceding 20 minutes or so. Evidently thinking of himself as some sort of musical savant or conniving to bamboozle these uncultured eggheads with his audacious intellectual range he then bumbled forward with some notion of examining Mozart’s music for some arcane structural patterns. Now this was an electrical engineering thesis group, mind you, but no idea born of any serious examination was ever dismissed out of hand—such was the ethos of MIT. It didn’t take long for Tom to tour the group through his crude idea during which Jerry Lettvin listened impassively. Lord knows what he was thinking, though.

Then he started asking Tom questions. It became immediately apparent that Tom hardly knew the tiniest fraction of what Jerry Lettvin knew … about Mozart, his music, the influence of his parents, the age he lived in, and on and on. With every answering non sequitur that followed from Toms lips, Jerry Lettvin’s speech became more pressured and animated, yet he never used an accusatory word or called Tom out for his disrespect or lack of diligence. Instead, he spun out yarns and more yarns of interesting ideas that Tom could explore for his thesis project.

I have always remembered this witnessing of the wellspring of Jerry Lettvin’s knowledge and his energy for its exploration, and his overpowering Tom, not with abuse or pronouncement, but with the riches of example. It hasn’t abided in perfect constancy, but on the occasions of my work as an educator, I’ve often reminded myself of what I have been given by the likes of Jerry Lettvin.

David Fish
MIT 1972 1977

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Video of Lettvin vs, Leary

John Moore has been kind enough to put up the full video of the debate

LSD: Lettvin vs. Leary


If you are a colleague, student, friend or relative of Jerry, who is interested in receiving information about a memorial event, and you have not contacted Gill Pratt already, you can send contact information to me,

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Building 20

Building 20 on Vassar Street

Jerry's labs and offices for most of the time he was at MIT were centered around Room 20-C-026 in Building 20. It was an amazing building and one that seemed as mutable as his interests. Here's some further information on the place.

Some changes

I have made some changes to the blog.

  1. Posting is now less restricted, but moderated.
  2. A template for smart phones is activated.
  3. The posting time is now EST rather than PST.
  4. If anyone has many stories and would like to post articles directly, email me and I'll set it up.


I just discovered that Jerry presented a paper called "Sepia, Squid, Sole and Seurat", at the International Design Conference in Aspen in 1980. If anyone has any information on this paper, please email me.

Murray Eden mentions Jerry

"I came (to MIT) just after the semester had started in the fall. I was met by Peter Elias and Claude Shannon at the Kendall Square Stop or at the faculty dining room, which was in the building that the Sloan school occupied on Memorial Drive, and we walked into the campus. Peter Elias, whom I had known for some time, had been a contributor to very early coding in information theory called block coding. One of these two guys asked, “I’ve got to talk to somebody who knows about electronics. Who should I talk to?” The other guy said, “Well, Jerry Lettvin, of course. Who else?” He wasn’t kidding. Jerry Lettvin was an incredible circuit designer. "
  • Murray Eden in an interview conducted by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 10 November 1999

Monday, May 9, 2011

Naomi Litvin's page about Jerry

Naomi posted this.

Jerry arm wrestles Jerry Rubin

"That was some trip. He (Jerry Lettvin) weighed about twice as much as me and smoked a cigar while he grunted and I swore out phrases at him in Yiddish like alta kaka as I strained."
  • Jerry Rubin in "Just Do It"

Jerry on Building 20

"You might regard it as the womb of the Institute. It is kind of messy, but by God it is procreative!"
  • Jerome Y. Lettvin, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering, quoted in an article by Simson Garfinkel, "Building 20: The Procreative Eyesore," from Technology Review, 94 (November/December 1991), page MIT11.

Jerry's 80th birthday

Pictures from Jerry's 80th birthday still lurk undeleted on the MIT servers.

Find them here.

More Data, More Noise

You can find a PDF of the book made for the celebration of Jerry's 60th birthday here:

More Data, More Noise

An even more fictional Jerry

Abe Igelfeld sent his condolences and included an interesting document.

"Rummaging through old papers before moving offices," he says, "I chanced upon the following fragment, hand-written on the back of a computer print-out."

The document, titled "An E20 Fragment" features a thinly disguised Jerry.

It's a little too long for a blog post, so I'm posting a link to it.

Let me know if you have trouble with the link, I think I've given sufficient permission but I've been wrong before. (About five minutes ago, actually.)

Jerry as a "fictional" character

I have not been able to track down the book, although at one time I owned a copy, nor do I remember the author (what a useless post this is), but there was a science fiction novel called "The Seed" in which Jerry played himself.

The premise was that some folks were building a super-computer in order to figure out why Earth exists. Somewhere around the middle they cite Jerry by name.

It was not a durable piece of fiction so I'll just go ahead and spoil it by telling you that mankind, according to the computer, is merely an infection that will develop nuclear weapons that produce a beautiful surface prior to the bead being drilled and strung on a huge necklace. Thus the title.

It was a bit derivative of an old John Collier short story, but I was thrilled to see Jerry's name in a novel.

If anyone remembers the particulars of the book, send me a note and I'll fill in the blanks.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Manteno State Hospital

Jerry spent about three and a half years as a Senior Psychiatrist at Manteno State Hospital. The hospital is no longer in operation, but some folks have put together an historical blog
Yes, I know they misspelled his name. I sent them a correction.

Let me introduce myself

My name is David Lettvin, I am Jerry and Maggie's first-born. Only those who worked with Jerry back in the 50s and 60s will likely have met me. My talents were in fields other than science so I wasn't around the lab much after that.

Jerry’s Easy Creativity:

Jerry’s genius was so all-encompassing and informal, I bet that most of us are unaware of many of his accomplishments. The following anecdote might be of interest, as it shows his little-known role in getting Jack Eccles the Nobel Prize.

In the race between Eccles and Cole to be the first to succeed in recording intracellularly from neurons, there was a significant technical barrier. Glass micropipettes had the potential to make such recordings, but stray capacitance limited the size and quality of the intracellular signals. At a conference in Cold Spring Harbour (in the early 1950s I think) the problem of stray capacitance was discussed. Jerry said that it could easily be solved by incorporating some “negative capacitance” into the amplifier circuit. He then proceeded to draw on the blackboard a rough circuit that produced some negative capacitance.

The New Zealand physicist, Jack Coombs, was present when Jerry drew the negative capacitance circuit and it was he who told me this story. Jack took the details in his head back to New Zealand where he was Eccles’ right hand man in the project to record inside motoneurons. It took some ingenuity for Jack to substantiate Jerry’s ideas into the thermionic valves of the day, but he succeeded, and the rest is history. The first successful intracellular recording from spinal motoneurons followed and Eccles received the Nobel Prize for that achievement.

Like Jerry’s innovative studies of octopus retina that were never published, along with many others, the story of negative capacitance is mostly unsung, but I think is typical of his easy creativity.

Jack Pettigrew
27 April 2011

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Jerry Omnibus

Jerry's biography on Wikipedia (written by Jonathan) is here:

Jonathan's pages on Jerry are here:

Jerry's autobiography (from "The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography) is here:

Lincoln Stoller interviews Jerry and his wife Maggie (WGBH exercise guru) here:

A copy of his groundbreaking paper "What the frog's eye tells the frog's brain" is here:

A list of his scientific publications is here:

His published translations of German poetry are here:

An audio recording of his famous debate with Timothy Leary is here:

His MIT obituary is here:

A remembrance of him by Marc Abrahams of the "Ig Nobel" awards and the Annals of Improbable Research is here:

To find out about a memorial for Jerry contact Gill Pratt at:

To post an article here contact David Lettvin at:

Obits etc.

The Boston Globe will be publishing an article on Jerry in the Metro section sometime this week.

No word yet on the NYT or the Chicago Tribune, both of which were contacted,

The MIT News has an obituary here:

Note that there is a link at the end of the article to contact Gil Pratt regarding plans for a memorial.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jerry and computers

One of Jerry's quirks was a deeply ingrained revulsion towards the use of computers. It was a wonderfully illogical prejudice. He used many complex electronic devices in his research, and hundreds of gadgets with embedded microchips without any qualms, but to use a "computer" was, to him, anathema.

It could be quite frustrating. We all knew that using a computer would have made it possible for him to read and communicate more easily. He would not budge.

When faced with an open laptop, he would go into a little bit of theater, playing a saint being confronted by the devil. This was a role that he relished, but, since many of his children and grandchildren were involved in high tech, tended to limit conversations.

He loved gadgets. I remember him being delighted with my MP3 player at one Thanksgiving dinner, right up to the point where I explained that I loaded the files on from my computer. I remember thinking at the time that it was like the aborigines in Gamow's "One, Two, Three, Infinity" who went blank when trying to deal with more numbers than they had fingers.

It was an act, of course, sort of a practical joke that got out of hand and became a programmatic response but he got used to enjoying the frustration that it created in those around him.

But that was Jerry for you. There was nothing more amusing to him than taking an indefensible position and making it impregnable.

Brains, Minds & Machines

I have heard that Jerry was honored during the opening ceremonies of Brains, Minds & Machines, an MIT +150 symposium at MIT's Kresge Auditorium.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Maggie would like me to let you know that she is no longer avoiding the telephone.

She would prefer to celebrate Jerry with memories and stories of his life.

Her email address is:

Please copy me on any stories that I can share on the blog. My email address is under the blog title.

A very basic obituary

Portions of the following were adapted from Jonathan's Wikipedia article with edits and corrections by Maggie 

Professor Jerome Ysroael Lettvin died Saturday April 23 at his home in Hingham, MA after a long illness.

"Jerry", as he insisted on being called, was a cognitive scientist and professor Emeritus of Electrical and Bioengineering and Communications Physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he taught and maintained a research laboratory. 

His best known work is the 1959 paper "What the frog's eye tells the frog's brain", one of the most cited papers in the Science Citation Index and what many consider to be the seminal paper for the science of Bionics. Although several co-authors were listed, the paper's literate clarity is a hallmark of Jerry's style. 

Born February 23, 1920 in Chicago to Solomon and Fanny Lettvin, he was eldest of four children (one brother was the pianist and teacher Theodore Lettvin). Jerry claimed to have had early jobs as a pocket pusher in a laundry, a spear carrier for an opera company, and a radical speechwriter. 

He trained as a neurologist and M.D. at the University of Illinois receiving  a B.S. and an M.D. (in 1943) and, was an intern at Boston City Hospital. The U.S. Army provided Jerry with further training as a psychiatrist, and he was an Army doctor during the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, spent a year as a neurologist at the University of Rochester, then a further 3 1/2 years as a psychiatrist at Manteno State Hospital in Illinois.

Jerry moved to Boston to begin research in neurology and nervous systems at MIT, working with Walter Pitts, Warren McCulloch, and Humberto Maturana under Norbert Wiener, where his multidisciplinary approach to theory, research and teaching (he taught classes in Electronics Engineering, History of Science, Biology, and Physiology) and his thoughtful and humorous approach made his cluster of offices and labs on the ground floor of Building 20 a magnet for talented and ingenious graduate students.

Jerry was a voracious reader, not just of scientific materials, but all types of literature and essays. His main office at MIT was crammed with bookshelves stacked two and three rows deep with books of all types. Many of these were well overdue from the MIT library. He claimed that the reason he never returned them is that the librarians would send the students who wanted those books to his office where he would interview them as potential assistants and collaborators.

His articles and papers were published in scientific and literary journals. He wrote many published articles on subjects varying from neurology and physiology to philosophy and politics to mythology and poetry. His translations of Christian Morgenstern's poems from German retain the playfulness of the originals.

Jerry was a firm advocate of individual rights appearing as an expert witness in trials in the U.S. and in Israel. During the antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s he helped negotiate agreements between police and protesters, and took part in the 1968 student takeover of the MIT Student Center in support of an AWOL soldier. 

In 1967, Timothy Leary was to debate an MIT professor about the merits of LSD. That professor became unavailable on the day of the event. The organizers finally came to Jerry's lab in desperation and asked him to do it. In his shirtsleeves, fresh from the middle of an experiment, he debated Leary extemporaneously. At one point he challenged Leary (a licensed psychologist) to diagnose the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. Leary's response was that those were the signs of an enlightened mystic to which Jerry responded with a resounding "bullshit," which expletive was so perfect a response that it was usually not edited out in spite of the prevailing broadcast laws at the time. 

He was a regular invitee at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony as "the world's smartest man" to debate extemporaneously against groups of people on their own subjects of expertise.

Professor Lettvin is survived by his wife Margaret (Maggie of the WGBH show Maggie and the Beautiful Machine), three children, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Last Photo

This is the last photo that I took of Jerry. Denise and I were having lunch with Jerry and Maggie at Linden Ponds in Hingham, MA. At this point, March 28th, Jerry was under full care, and had a lot of trouble with his memory, but was very sociable and retained his sense of humor.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

From Alex Andrew

I learned a lot from Jerry during a spell in MIT in the mid nineteen-fifties, both in the laboratory and in generally knocking around with him and others, especially Brad Howland. I got the sad news of Jerry’s death in a phone call from Brad.

During part of the time at MIT I lived in the Lettvin household and knew David, Ruth and Jonathan as youngsters. I would have liked to tell a story or two to illustrate that crazy but productive time but many incidents come to mind and I haven’t been able to choose. I’ll put some of them into an obituary notice for the journal Kybernetes. In the meantime I send condolences to all, especially Maggie.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Improbable Research

Marc Abrahams posted a nice article about Jerry on the Improbable Research blog.

Jerry the Actor

Of course he was always on, but at one point was a television actor.

Taking on a a role that was not far from his own personality, he played a crazily seductive scientist and demonstrator who was tempting people to sniff ether.

The show was an early Nova episode called "Strange Sleep" about anaesthesia. It aired for the first time on PBS on April 4, 1974, and in 1975 won the Red Ribbon at the American Film Festival.

Unfortunately, there are no links to view the episode over the Web, but I will keep looking and post a link here if I find one or if I find a place to buy it from.

The Stazione

Jerry spent several years at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, Italy.
The ground floor of the building, to the left of the central door was a public aquarium, the rest of the building consisted of labs, offices, libraries, and other support facilities for marine biology research. Some of the other people in residence were: J.Z. Young, Andrew Packard, Ilona Richter, Martin Wells, Ilona and Beate Schiff, etc.

One of Jerry's favorites among the maintenance staff was the electrician who tested the 220v light sockets by licking his fingers and inserting them.

Jerry and Warren

Jerry and Warren McCulloch experimenting with carbonization.

Jerry's Papers

Jerry was a prolific writer, writing many drafts of each article, paper, or poem.

Last year, we sent nearly 100 bankers boxes of manuscript, typescript, notes, etc. to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where his documents share a vault with those of his colleague Warren McCulloch as well as fellow radicals Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The APS archivists are engaged in the huge task of cataloging the material after which it will be listed among their acquisitions.

The Telephone

Maggie has asked me to let people know that, rather than getting condolences and sympathy, she would prefer anecdotes, stories of Jerry's adventures and mishaps, his wit and warmth. Please consider this blog as a venue to share such stories with her and the rest of Jerry's genetic and academic families and friends.


Lock picker

Jerry had one of the most massive key-rings I have ever seen. My memory may be faulty, but I remember it as being a full six inches in diameter with little room left for additional keys, a real "janitor's ring." He had keys to dozens of offices, labs, classrooms, basements, roofs, athletic facilities, etc. It was too big for his pocket, so he usually wore it on an industrial strength metal key retriever that was clipped to the leather belt at his waist, where it jangled and scraped against walls and doors. At times I wondered how he kept his pants from falling down since the net weight must have been a couple of pounds.

But, although he carried this huge metal rosary at his waist, he seldom used any of them since his favorite mode of moving about the MIT campus was through the use of a "loid" He always had a couple of old credit cards, a length of plastic ruler, or a piece of twisted coat-hanger in his pocket, and there were few places that could deny his entry. He prided himself on being able to use the maze of tunnels, corridors and maintenance passages to cross the entire campus without ever going outside. He tried to teach me the tricks, but I was an indifferent student of the art, either being too clumsy or having too big a self-righteous stick up my butt.

Bearing in mind his usual attitude of never letting truth stand in the way of a good story, Jerry once claimed to have taught Amar Bose the tricks of gaining after-hours entry at the MIT swimming pool so that he could experiment with its acoustics.


There are indications that a memorial gathering is potential. Details when I hear them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The "bug" in Bradford

From the left: Ruthie, Jonathan, Jerry, Joan holding one David, Teddy holding Rory, the other David. Maggie might be the one behind the camera. Bradford, NH.
(Thanks to Rory Lettvin for the photo.)

Young guns

David (me), Teddy, Jerry, Rory and Jonathan in Bradford NH in the 60s.
(Thanks to Rory Lettvin for the photo.)

Nothing good ...

... can come from mixing intellectuals and guns. Jerry waits gleefully for his turn as brother Teddy seems ready to solo on a new instrument in preparation for the 1812 Overture. The photo was taken at Teddy's house in Bradford NH.
(Thanks to Rory Lettvin for the photo.)

The Aesthete

When I sit, I sitting, tend
to sit a seat with sense so fine
that I can feel my sit-soul blend
insensibly with seat's design.

Seeking no support the while
it assesses stools for style
leaving what the structure means
for blind behinds of Philistines.

--Christian Morgenstern from Die Galgenlieder, Translated by Jerry Lettvin

Note Jerry's use of alliteration which lets him fill the poem with asses just as he fills the chair with his own. Even the title is a lisping pun. 

This is an excellent example of his ability to retain Morgenstern's humor. I have read several other translations none of which have the same sense of wicked play. I wish that he had done more than the few that were published in The Fat Abbot.

Jerry and Maggie

Here they come! 

There they go!

A choice of venue

Jonathan has a collection of photos on his wiki. (See the comments to the first post.) I will be publishing photos one at a time here with further comments and an attempt at identification.

Jerry as Archimedes

In an old clawfoot bathtub with a reinforced plywood board across it. Occasionally the books on his bathtub desk would be replaced by a large, gray, Underwood manual typewriter.


A partial list of Jerry's papers and publications may be found here:

In addition to Jonathan's wiki page of the Morgenstern translations, there is another page at:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The background image

The background image of this site is the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana Pipiens) which was the animal which was the basis of most of Jerry's research. The photo is from a University of Washington website.

More Data More Noise

That was the title of a book assembled for one of my father's many birthdays. It contains many remembrances and stories which I may repost here as I get permissions.


Currently, no ceremony is planned. Should that change, I will post it here.

Jerry with Walter Pitts and unnamed collaborator

See more of this collaborator in the background of this blog.

Thank God it's Faraday!

Sorry for my tendency to pun. It is my most durable inheritance from Jerry, who in this picture is sitting in a "Faraday cage," a metal mesh enclosure that protected his equipment and experiments from external electrical and electronic "noise."

Jerry at rest


At about 12:30 today, April 23 2011, Professor Jerome Y. Lettvin died peacefully listening to his own translations of Christian Morgenstern..

This blog will serve as a tribute page for those who wish to communicate in this way. Please feel free to contribute any stories or memories.

Photographs and stories should be sent via email for insertion.

More details will follow.