- Feature Story
Department Mourns Loss of Longtime Faculty Members
Suzanne Corkin and Whitman Richards had combined 110 years of dedicated service to MIT.
Suzanne Hammond Corkin, Professor of Neuroscience Emerita in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, died of liver cancer on May 24, 2016. Corkin received her PhD from McGill University in 1964 under the tutelage of Dr. Brenda Milner. Her research during her 51-year career at MIT focused on the study of patients with neurological disease, with the goal of linking specific cognitive processes, particularly memory, to discrete brain circuits. She was well known for her investigation of the famous amnesic patient, H.M., whom she met in 1962 and studied until his death in 2008.
Corkin also described the long-term consequences of head injury in World War II and Korean War veterans, and the safety and efficacy of a psychosurgical procedure, cingulotomy, in patients with medication resistant psychiatric disease. Her subsequent research focused on the neural underpinnings of age-related degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She and her colleagues developed behavioral tasks that elucidated the nature and severity of individual Parkinson and Alzheimer patients’ cognitive and psychiatric deficits, and innovative neuroanatomical labeling tools for visualizing brain regions that are targeted by PD or AD pathophysiology.
The recipient of numerous awards, Corkin was especially proud to receive the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Undergraduate Advising Award at MIT in 2011. She was a freshman advisor for 17 years, and served on several Institute and Departmental committees.
On May 18, 2016 she had a joyful celebration of her 79th birthday in the company of family, friends, and her beloved dog Trooper, whom she rescued from the streets of Ecuador. In keeping with her commitment to understanding memory and other aspects of brain function, Corkin arranged for her brain to be donated for research.
Corkin is survived by beloved sons J. Zachary Corkin II; Damon Lester Corkin and his wife Angela Adriana Veliz-Corkin; daughter Jocelyn Hammond Corkin and her husband Peter Mortimer; and adored grandchildren Charles Corkin III, Colette Sage Corkin, Wesley Donald Corkin, Pia Frances Corkin Mortimer, Xavier Charles Corkin Mortimer, Olivia Suzanne Corkin, and Stella Paz Corkin. Gifts in Corkin’s memory may be made to MIT to support minority women students in science (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org), to the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston (under “designated giving” at https://www.mspca. org/donate-now/), or to Grassroots Wildlife Conservation (http://www.grassrootswildlife.org/).
Whitman Richards, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Sciences and Media Arts and Sciences, and Principal Investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, died on September 16th after a long battle with myelofibrosis. One of the first four Ph.D. graduates of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), his more than 60 years at MIT were marked by a dedication to the experimental and theoretical study of vision, perception, and cognition.
Richards began his affiliation with MIT as an undergraduate, matriculating in 1950. His decision to return to MIT for graduate work (Ph.D ’65) was greatly inspired by a meeting with BCS founder and then department head Professor Hans-Lukas Teuber.
“In the 1960’s, with the advent of accessible computer technology, the development of information theory, and the single electrode, there was renewed excitement about prospects for modeling and understanding mind and brain,” said Richards in a 2004 MIT interview. “Teuber’s charisma and broad vision for a new psychol¬ogy was a powerful draw [to the department]. …There was a unique opportunity for a non-traditional grounding in a discipline otherwise mired in tradition.”
Richards’ early research pursued traditional psychophysical experimental methods to study the mechanisms of color perception and stereovision. In the 1970s, his research direction and methodology shifted dramatically after meeting noted physiologist David Marr, who he eventually recruited to MIT. Instead of relying on the traditional experimental methods that had characterized his early career, Richards, Marr, and colleagues began to look for the deep, underlying mathematical principles that allowed a human or artificial visual system to look at the world and make accurate inferences about what the system saw or perceived.
“The breadth of his research was really quite remarkable,” says MIT Professor of Computational Cognitive Science and former Richards graduate student Josh Tenenbaum. “As his career developed, he transitioned from studying the parts of vison that are very close to neural mechanisms, to computational representations of perception, to Bayesian statistical models of perception and cognition. He became almost a computational social scientist - he was incredibly flexible in his thinking.”
Richards’ passionate advocacy for the computational approach to studying visual perception helped to create and nurture the department’s early computational research initiatives.
“Whit’s connection with David Marr back in the late ’70s is really the genesis of modern computational social science today,” says MIT Professor Alex Pentland, Toshiba Professor of Media Arts & Science and former Richards graduate student.
Alongside his impressive research legacy, which includes the publication of eight books and over 200 articles, he was also regarded by his students and colleagues as a superlative mentor. Many of his former students have found success in a variety of different fields, including psychology, cognitive science, computer science, media, computer graphics, and the defense industry.
“Whitman was an incredibly dedicated advisor. His strategy was to have very few students and make a huge personal investment in each of them,” says John Rubin, a former graduate student of Richards and current executive producer with Tangled Bank Studios at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “He was really great at keeping enthusiasm high in his lab, which took all kinds of forms, but included croquet parties at his home, which were terrifically fun. He was always available and in fact it was hard for me to keep up with the amount of time he wanted to devote to our joint work! He was indefatigable and devoted.”
Richards is survived by his wife of 54 years, Waltraud Weller Richards, and three daughters: Diana Richards Doyle and husband Mark S. Doyle of Green Cove Springs, FL; Sylvia Richards-Gerngross and husband Tillman Gerngross of Hanover, NH; and Eleanor “Nora” Richards Bender and husband Thomas A. Bender of Dedham, MA. He is also survived by his two siblings: Lincoln K. Richards and wife Gerda of Wellesley, MA, and Sylvia Richards Messner of Cave Creek, AZ; and by two grandchildren, Morgan Kelly Doyle and Serafina Richards-Gerngross. Memorial services will be private.
Suzanne Corkin, Louis Bachrach
Whitman Richards, MIT Media Lab, Webb Chappell