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.