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.