McCulloch, Warren S. (Warren Sturgis), 1898-

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1898-11-16
Death 1969-09-24

Biographical notes:

Warren Sturgis McCulloch was a neurologist and psychologist.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1935-1968. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122523433

A pioneer in cybernetics, neurology, and the development of the computer, Warren Sturgis McCulloch was born on November 16, 1898, in Orange, N.J. Beginning college at Haverford in 1916, McCulloch transferred to Yale in order to join the Officers' Training Program - an option not available at the Quaker school. After service in the Navy during the First World War, McCulloch completed his bachelors degree in philosophy and psychology at Yale (1921), and attended Columbia University for a masters in psychology (1923).

Having imbibed Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant, and fascinated with the relationship of physiology, perception, and thought, McCulloch entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York to round out his background for understanding the role of the nervous system. After receiving his MD in 1927 and an internship at Bellevue Hospital, McCulloch held some routine professional appointments at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, N.Y., from 1932 to 1934 - primarily to keep afloat during worst years of the Depression -- but in 1934, he returned to Yale as a Sterling Fellow (1935-1936) in the Laboratory for Neurophysiology, where he pursued research in neuroanatomy, tracing neural pathways in the brain. More important for the future of his career, McCulloch was placed in an environment in which he could cultivate his broader interest in philosophical issues relating to perception and thought and working toward his development of an "experimental epistemology." McCulloch remained at Yale as an instructor and assistant professor until 1941.

Although an important figure in the early development of computing, McCulloch's goal in research was as much to lay bare the foundations for how we think as it was to develop practical applications - or in other words, to develop an "experimental epistemology" with which to relate mind and brain. Perhaps the most significant work to emerge from this period of McCulloch's career was his landmark paper with Walter Pitts, "A Logical Calculus Immanent in Nervous Activity" ( Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 5 (1943): 115-133). The "Logical calculus" was an attempt to develop just that: a rigorous description of neural activity independent of resort to theories of a soul or mind. Together with McCulloch and Pitts' follow-up work, "How we know universals: The perception of auditory and visual forms" ( Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 9 (1947) 127-147), the "Logical calculus" provided a compact mathematical model for understanding neural relationships laying the groundwork for neural network theory and automata theory, and forming the ur-foundation of modern computation (through John Von Neumannn) and cybernetics.

McCulloch went from Yale to the University of Illinois College of Medicine (1941-1948) before joining the staff of the Electronics Research Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Beginning in 1943, McCulloch chaired a series of ten eventful annual meetings funded by the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation. The Macy Conferences - attended by McCulloch, Pitts, Norbert Wiener, John Von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Claude Shannon, Wolfgang Köhler, and Heinrich Klüver among others - were an effort to bring physiologists, anthropologists, and engineers to discuss signal processing, computation, and communication.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, McCulloch was actively involved in research in examining similarities between physical and biological systems and in theorizing a biological computer. He was instrumental in founding the American Society for Cybernetics, serving as its first president in 1967-1968. McCulloch died in Cambridge, Mass., in 1969.

From the guide to the Warren S. McCulloch Papers, Circa 1935-1968, (American Philosophical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Outer space
  • Space biology
  • American Society of Cybernetics
  • Military art and science
  • Perception--Physiological aspects
  • Neurology
  • Biological psychiatry
  • Cybernetics
  • Brain--Research
  • Central nervous system
  • Automata theory
  • Neural computers
  • Computers
  • Information theory
  • Biological control systems
  • Medical sciences
  • Biology--Research
  • Military research
  • Psychology
  • Chemical warfare
  • Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)