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Jerome Y. Lettvin: February 23, 1920-April 23, 2011
Article Type: Obituary notice From: Kybernetes, Volume 40, Issue 7/8
“Jerry” Lettvin died peacefully in the early afternoon of April 23, at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts. He was a charismatic figure who continued to be the focus of voluntary discussion groups in MIT up to an advanced age and was regarded by many who knew him as one of the leading original thinkers of our time. The part he played in the founding of cybernetics receives much less attention than it deserves. He was associated with Warren McCulloch from very early days and is mentioned in Wiener’s famous book. He made the first contact with Walter Pitts, in Chicago, and after knowing him for some time introduced him to the McCulloch household. The overworked phrase “and the rest is history” comes strongly to mind.
A well-produced entry in the Wikipedia, at: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome_Lettvin treats his life and career under headings of: early life, scientific philosophy, unusual experiments, politics, trivia and published papers. A “blog” or biographical log, to which contributions of stories or comments are invited, is being maintained by his son David at: www.jerrylettvin.blogspot.com/2011/04/jerry.html. A well-researched obituary from the Boston Globe is at: www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2011/05/15/jerome_lettvin_mit_professor_with_passion_for_ideas_a_good_debate/
An autobiography (Lettvin, 1998) can be downloaded, though it has to be mentioned that at some points Jerry’s memory has been faulty, and in particular his claim that I and my first wife Joyce disapproved of animal experiments is not correct. Both of us believed, as did Jerry, that such experiments should be conducted humanely, but we realised their enormous value to science and medicine and were both involved with them. To continue this account, the set of headings used in the Wikipedia entry seems a good example to follow.
Jerry was born in Chicago to parents who had both emigrated from the Ukraine. His father was politically active in defence of human rights and in the autobiography Jerry refers to him as a “Kropotkin-type anarchist turned lawyer”. Life was clearly difficult during the years of the depression, and for example Jerry attributed his ability to eat highly spiced food to the fact that at that time he made use of eating places that offered as much as the customer could eat of chilli-con-carne for ten cents. The offer was possible because the proportion of chilli in the mixture was such that most people ate only a small amount, but Jerry had persevered until his taste buds surrendered. He graduated in medicine in time to serve as a doctor in the forces under Patton including in the hard-fought Ardennes Offensive, or “Battle of the Bulge”, in the Second World War.
Jerry realised that much of accepted theory in neurophysiology is flawed, and delighted in devising critical experiments that would force revisions. This was rather crudely announced in the laboratory by reference to: “national screw-xxx week” where “xxx” would be the scientist whose name was associated with some major piece of accepted theory. Of course, the reference was jocular and not so confrontational as it seems and if “xxx” had appeared at the door of the laboratory he would have been welcomed and shown around and invited to participate in constructive debate.
Two major results obtained in MIT are presented in, respectively, Howland et al. (1955) and Lettvin et al. (1959, 1961). Both of these ran counter to previously accepted viewpoints, as did also the later work of Pat Wall (Andrew, 2002) on pain mechanisms. It was also in this research group that Bob Gesteland began his study of olfaction (Abrahams, 2000), a sense that tends to be overlooked because humans use it so little in comparison with other animals. A collection of further results, of which I was not previously aware, are listed in the Wikipedia entry under the heading of “unusual experiments”.
I can remember Jerry reminiscing about experiments using chimpanzees, conducted along with Warren McCulloch in their earlier location in Chicago, and this was probably part of Warren’s major contribution to the mapping of neural pathways by the technique of strychnine neuronography (Jerry reminisced that the chimpanzees were delightful playful creatures and when one was awaiting its fate the experimenters could not resist playing with it. They then had to draw straws to decide who would give the anaesthetic).
The mildly confrontational approach to research led to a number of unusual experiments including those in the field of neurophysiology listed in the Wikipedia entry. Jerry was also ready to apply unconventional thinking in other areas and in his autobiography (Lettvin, 1998) he describes an anti-wiretapping scheme devised by him and Brad Howland. The approach is quite different from the many attempts to achieve security by use of “scramblers”, but would not be useful, unless for protecting very local calls, in a modern telephone system using digital transmission.
Another chance to exercise ingenuity arose when Jerry agreed to develop equipment of the “polygraph” type to be used by psychiatrists in one of the Boston hospitals. The aim was to record a number of physical variables related to emotion from both patient and psychiatrist during a therapy session. Jerry was interested in the outcome, though with an interpretive basis quite opposite to that of the hospital psychiatrists. They believed, based on arguments from psychoanalysis, that a good psychiatrist should show emotional changes matching those of the patient, so as to facilitate transference of the patient’s difficulties. Jerry took the opposite view and believed that a defining characteristic of a good therapist was ability to observe calmly with minimal involvement.
This clash of overall motivations did not prevent the devising of interesting gadgetry including means of recording a “ballistocardiogram”, an idea that was new to me. This used a crude accelerometer, consisting of a weight on a stalk and a transducer sensitive to deflection, strapped to the side or thigh of a subject lying flat on a resilient couch or mattress. It detected a tremor due to the downward acceleration of a mass of blood with each beat of the heart. This can be a good indicator, probably clearer than the more usual electrocardiogram, of emotional changes accompanied by “pounding of the heart”.
Jerry, along with others of the group around Warren McCulloch, was very critical of therapy based on Freudian psychoanalysis, as practiced with enormous financial gain by some American psychiatrists. I think the quarrel was not so much with the basis provided by Freud as with the use made of it to claim that various sets of unfounded opinions should be accepted as “science”. Another of Jerry’s bright ideas was that it would send a useful message if literature on psychoanalysis was classed with religious material and allowed concessionary postal rates by the US postal service.
The emphasis on confrontational, and sometimes bizarre, experimentation should not give the impression that the work of Jerry and the group was lightweight or unsound. There is a need for critical examination of accepted theories, which often become enshrined as part of a widely accepted folklore, and the work included very detailed examination of various important issues. For example, in the same journal issue as the famous “frog’s eye” paper, there is a very detailed discussion of the technicalities of microelectrode recording, by Gesteland et al. (1959). This includes a circuit diagram utilising transistors, which were cutting-edge technology at the time, and other papers listed in the Wikipedia entry contribute to the same theme. Effective research in neurophysiology requires a rare combination of technical ingenuity with understanding of the biology.
Jerry’s politics were left wing and humanitarian and with regard to human rights. He seldom spoke of his experiences in the Second World War but several times I heard him regret that he had not gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War. At one stage, his trade-union activities drew unwelcome attention and he recalled receiving, at home in the Boston area, a phone call from his mother in Chicago in which she said nothing except that she would write him a letter. It was in the days when telephoning involved talking to operators, and in this case the operator had apologised to the mother for a delay in making the connection, with the explanation that calls to that number had to be routed through the police office. It seems rather likely that the operator was deliberately giving the game away as his own protest.
Under this not-entirely-appropriate heading, in the Wikipedia, there is an account of Jerry’s debate with Timothy Leary about use of illegal and psychoactive drugs. Jerry was recruited for the debate at short notice because of illness of another professor, and was in a difficult position since he supported personal freedom in general but at the same time did not want to encourage harmful drug taking. He was able to refer to psychiatric conditions in which the patient appears to be entirely happy, but in a totally vacuous way, with no significant thought or communication, and he asked his audience to consider whether they would want to change places with such a patient. This appears to have successfully countered the arguments of Leary. There is also in this section an amusing, but at the same time disturbing, account of interaction with an intelligent octopus during time that Jerry was a guest in the Marine Biological Station in Naples.
A very useful bibliography is included in the Wikipedia entry, including many items I did not know about previously and some that I hope to look into. Most of the papers have multiple authorship, sometimes very much so, and this reflects Jerry’s reluctance to pursue personal kudos.
Jerry is survived by his wife Maggie, and by sons David and Jonathan, and daughter Ruth intermediate in age between the boys. Maggie has become a highly successful author in her own right, starting with her Back Book (Lettvin, 1977) which she wrote after she had suffered a back injury in a traffic accident, and found the set of exercises that she describes to be more useful than the surgery she was offered but refused. Both of the sons have web pages of their own and Jonathan continues the tradition of unconventional approaches in neurophysiology. Ruth, as Ruth McCambridge, was responsible for the illustrations in the Back Book and has also edited a journal concerned with social issues called Nonprofit Quarterly, as I learned (Andrew, 2003) when I called on Jerry and Maggie after attending the 12th WOSC Congress in Pittsburgh.
There are pictures of Jerry in the Wikipedia entry and in his autobiography, and in the picture section of the book by Conway and Siegelman (2005). The first and last of these show him with a magnificent black beard that he was required to remove when he joined MIT. At that time, beards were prohibited there, though the rule was waived for figures judged to be sufficiently eminent including Warren McCulloch and Norbert Wiener. The pictures all show Jerry to be large and corpulent, as indeed he was. At the time I first met him in the 1950s, he had been advised by another doctor that if he did not reduce his weight significantly he might expect to live for about six months. Jerry continued to be seriously overweight, but fortunately the gloomy prognosis has turned out to be in error by a factor of over 100.
The unfortunate rift between Norbert Wiener and the McCulloch group, described by Conway and Siegelman (2005), had happened before the time of my spell at MIT, but Jerry had happy memories of the time when he and Walter Pitts and Wiener were good friends and even joined forces in carrying out some harmless practical jokes. One was to put a picket line of miniature figures with “strike” placards around a model of an industrial plant that was displayed in a secure glass case. Getting the figures in place took some time as it had to be done using wires poked through small gaps. It seems that Wiener was an ideal person to keep watch. He was much more useful than a lookout who would merely give a warning, since he had enough wit and enough status to detain the potential interrupter in conversation for as long as.necessary. Of course, this playful activity was in addition to their collaboration on serious projects, and Brad Howland recalls that Jerry began studies in mathematics under Wiener’s direction.
For a large part of the time I spent with the McCulloch group in the mid-1950s I stayed in the Lettvin household, and among many new impressions at the time I had some introduction to Jewish culture. It was a gentle and once-removed introduction since the lady of the house was not Jewish and there was no pretence of keeping “kosher house” and obeying the food laws, but certainly the regard for scholarship and fondness for ingenious arguments that were part of the culture were very much in evidence. The kitchen and dining area of the house were treated as a social club and debating chamber by a host of friends and the discussions were interesting and instructive. A frequent visitor was a lawyer who specialised in defending civil rights cases, and who had an endless fund of accounts of amusing incidents in the courts, often exposing rather dubious police tactics.
Besides being physically large, Jerry had a flamboyant manner that invites description as “larger than life”, though it was always with underlying geniality and humanity. It was in evidence when Brad Howland and Jerry and I sometimes went for a meal to a small Armenian restaurant that operated in an upstairs corner of a drab-looking warehouse building. Jerry maintained, apparently correctly, that it was customary to go into the kitchen to inspect the available meat and to make a selection, and this he did. After a time he would emerge, with smiles and goodwill all around, and certainly the food that was brought to us a little later was first rate, though Brad and I had a feeling that the meat was probably what we would have had even without the theatrical performance. Anyhow, when the cook came from the kitchen to enquire how “da boys” were liking “da shish-kebab” we were able to respond with enthusiasm.
In the laboratory, Jerry had remarkable success in persuading gadgets and experiments to work. The experiments depended on a large amount of electronic gadgetry, much of it purpose-built with knobs and connectors unlabelled. Occasionally, something went wrong at a critical point in an experiment, often when Brad Howland was not around, and Jerry was usually able to fix the problem, at least temporarily. The work depended on micro-electrodes that were made by fusing and drawing-out glass tubing so that it shrank onto fine platinum wire, and electrodes were needed in rather large numbers for the spinal-cord experiments (Howland et al., 1955) in which they were snipped off and left in place to mark their tracks. In the MIT laboratory, I would sometimes sit and make a batch of electrodes using the equipment set up by Jerry, but for some reason I never managed to get good results when I put together similar gadgetry back in Glasgow.
The magic touch seemed to operate at the biological as well as the physical level, and the account of the frog-eye findings in a collection edited by Walter Rosenblith (Lettvin et al., 1961) was (according to an account by Brad Howland) associated with a live demonstration to a conference, that apparently went exactly to plan.
The consistent success that Jerry seems to have enjoyed cannot reasonably be attributed entirely to luck and must have been due to innate analysis and skill as indicated by the term “knack”. I can however remember one manifestation that can hardly be attributed to anything but luck. Jerry did not like to walk if it could be avoided, and when we went somewhere with Brad Howland by car there was often the familiar problem of finding a space to park, and Brad would head for an available gap some way from the destination. Jerry would urge him to drive on, saying there would be a space nearer, and Brad swore that when Jerry was with him there always was, though never when he was alone.
Whatever the explanation of this apparent extra-sensory perception, the world has lost a powerful intellect as well as a caring and charismatic figure to whom I personally owe a great deal.
Alex M. Andrew
Abrahams, M. (2000), “RE-DISCOVERY – the essence of a sniff”, Annals of Improbable Research, Vol. 6 No. 4, available at: www.improb.com/airchives/paperair/volume6/v6i4/sniff-6-4.html
Andrew, A.M. (2002), “Obituary: pat wall”, Kybernetes, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 336–8
Andrew, A.M. (2003), “Internet commentary”, Kybernetes, Vol. 32 No. 3, pp. 247–50
Conway, F. and Siegelman, J. (2005), Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, Basic Books, New York, NY, Reviewed in: Kybernetes, Vol. 34 No. 7/8, pp. 1284-1289
Gesteland, R.C., Howland, B., Lettvin, J.Y. and Pitts, W.H. (1959), “Comments on microelectrodes”, Proc. I.R.E, Vol. 47 No. 11, pp. 1856–62
Howland, B., Lettvin, J.Y., McCulloch, W.S., Pitts, W. and Wall, P.D. (1955), “Reflex inhibition by dorsal root interaction”, J. Neurophysiol, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 1–17 (reprinted in McCulloch, W.S. (Ed.) (1965), Embodiments of Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 177-193)
Lettvin, J.Y. (1998), “Autobiography”, in Squire, L.R. (Ed.), The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, Vol. 2, Academic Press, San Diego, CA, pp. 222–43, available at: www.sfn.org/index.aspx?pagename=HistoryofNeuroscience_autobiographies
Lettvin, J.Y., Maturana, H.R., McCulloch, W.S. and Pitts, W.H. (1959), “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain”, Proc. I.R.E, Vol. 47 No. 11, pp. 1940–59 (reprinted in McCulloch, W.S. (Ed.) (1965), Embodiments of Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 230-55)
Lettvin, J.Y., Maturana, H.R., Pitts, W.H. and McCulloch, W.S. (1961), “Two remarks on the visual system of the frog”, in Rosenblith, W.A. (Ed.), Sensory Communication, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 757–76
Lettvin, M. (1977), Maggie’s Back Book: Healing the Hurt in Your Lower Back, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA