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Warren Sturgis McCulloch was born in Orange, New Jersey and studied at Yale (philosophy and psychology, A.B. degree in 1921) and Columbia (psychology, M.A. degree in 1923). Receiving his MD in 1927 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York he undertook an internship at Bellevue Hospital, New York before returning to academia in 1934.
He is remembered for his work with Dusser de Barenne (Yale) and later Walter Pitts (University of Chicago) which provided the foundation for certain brain theories in a number of classic papers, including "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" (1943) and "How We Know Universals: The Perception of Auditory and Visual Forms" (1947), both in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics. In the 1943 paper they attempted to demonstrate that a Turing machine program could be implemented in a finite network of formal neurons, (in the event, the Turing Machine contains their model of the brain, but the converse is not true; see S.C. Kleene, "Representations of Events in Nerve Nets and Finite Automata") that the neuron was the base logic unit of the brain. In the 1947 paper they offered approaches to designing "nervous nets" to recognize visual inputs despite changes in orientation or size.
From 1952 he worked at the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics, working primarily on neural network modelling. His team examined the visual system of the frog in consideration of McCulloch's 1947 paper, discovering that the eye provides the brain with information that is already, to a degree, organized and interpreted, instead of simply transmitting an image. McCulloch also posited the concept of "poker chip" reticular formations as to how the brain deals with contradictory information in a democratic, somatotopical neural network. His principle of "Redundancy of Potential Command" was developed by von Forster and Pask in their study of Self-organization.
He met Alan Turing once, but Turing dismissed him as a 'charlatan'.
Warren McCulloch had a remarkable range of interests and talents. In addition to his scientific contributions he wrote poetry (sonnets), and he designed and engineered buildings and a dam at his farm in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He died in Cambridge in 1969. His papers now reside in the manuscripts collection of the American Philosophical Society.
- New York Times (1969), Obituaries, September 25.
- McCulloch, Warren S. (1965), Embodiments of Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
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