Murray Eden

August 17, 1920August 9, 2020

Murray Eden, Emeritus Professor in Electrical Engineering at MIT, died last Sunday, August 9, 2020, just a week before his 100th birthday. He is remembered by his family for his love of explaining, his inclusive attitude, his tendency to break into song, and his ever-present cigar. Acknowledged as a pioneer in the field of biomedical engineering, Eden worked at the intersection of mathematics, engineering, biology, and medicine. He is credited with foundational work in pattern recognition and its application in image processing for medical diagnoses. While at MIT he held an appointment at Harvard Medical School and later became director of the NIH Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Program. Over his long career at MIT and NIH, he collaborated with colleagues from many disciplines and mentored young researchers and students. Among their contributions were independent development of one of the first MRI systems and the first applications of wavelets to computed tomography. He is also widely known for a paper questioning the mathematical probability of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which briefly made him a darling of believers in intelligent design. Born in Brooklyn, New York, August 17, 1920, into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, Eden graduated at 14 from Townsend Harris high school in Manhattan. He credits his uncle, Leo Taran, a pediatric cardiologist, with inspiring his early interest in science and technology. Although his father had worked as a degreed civil engineer, thanks to the depression and pre-war anti-Semitism, the family experienced economic difficulties during his childhood years. He graduated from City College of New York in 1939 and moved to Washington DC in 1940, where he entered civil service as a junior clerk typist and attended graduate school in chemistry at the University of Maryland. During World War II, he worked in the Princeton facility of the Manhattan Project alongside then student Dick Feynman and others, helping produce Uranium-235, and at the National Bureau of Standards as a chemist working on military equipment problems. In 1945 he married Sara Baker, and the couple started a family. After the war, he began his recurring association with NIH as a biophysicist at the National Cancer Institute and later at the National Heart Institute, interrupted by a two-year USPHS fellowship to work with mathematician William Feller at Princeton University. In 1958 he was invited to MIT to join the Communications Biophysics Lab starting as Associate Professor. From 1964 until his retirement in 1979, he was a Professor of Electrical Engineering. He cofounded the Cognitive Information Processing Group, where he and a collection of graduate students from multiple disciplines, conducted research on pattern recognition, human sensory and image processing. While at MIT he served as House Master of Senior House dormitory. He and his second wife, Patricia, are remembered by many of the resident students for their accessibility, humor, and hospitality. On many occasions between 1963 and 1992, he consulted on research and development for the Director-General of the World Health Organization, and in 1983, he received the WHO Medical Society medal. A favorite story concerns the now infamous Wistar Institute Symposium of 1966. Eden, his friend the mathematician Marcel-Paul Schützenberger and other colleagues had been trying to mathematically model the neo-Darwinian theory that species evolve by random mutation. After multiple failed attempts, they began to question the theory. At a picnic in Geneva (Switzerland) in 1965, a small group of internationally known mathematicians and biologists including Eden, came up with the idea of a symposium for scientific debate on the subject. After heated discussions at the symposium, two camps coalesced: neo-Darwinian adherents (mostly biologists) and skeptics (mostly mathematicians and Eden and the other skeptics, in the belief that their papers supported the theory of intelligent design. Another favorite story concerns his role in the creation of the ubiquitous UPC, or barcode, designed to allow merchants to track and control inventory by scanning items at checkout. In the early 1970s, he was the principle technical consultant to the Symbol Subcommittee of the Universal Grocery Product Code Council. He attended meetings mostly as an observer, but in the final specification of the code he made two suggestions: to place numbers below the bar code as a failsafe and which font to use. Both are still in today’s UPC. In 1979 he accepted an offer to head NIH’S Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Program (BEIP) and received the Directors award in 1993. Although his duties were largely administrative, Eden recruited a group of young international scientists from diverse disciplines, whose research and inventions were foundational to the biomedical imaging technologies in use today in most hospitals. During this time, he also held visiting appointments as adjunct professor of electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and guest professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1983 and 1987. After retiring from NIH in 1994, he and Patricia returned to Boston. He remained active with invited lectures, seminars in optical illusion and as an adjunct professor in environmental health at Boston University School Public Health. Eden was a Life Fellow of IEEE. He began the decades long association as Editor of Information and Control in 1962. He was also a member of the IEEE “The institute” Advisory Board, as well as Spectrum Magazine Editorial Board. While in college, Eden had found like-minded radicals working on the newspaper, City College Campus; however, he quit the paper when he was pressured to join the Young Communist League. Instead, he joined Avukah, a secular Zionist student organization with a newspaper. Zellig Harris, the University of Pennsylvania linguist, was influential in Avukah and befriended Eden, his lifelong friend Noam Chomsky (Harris’ student) and others who went on to distinguished careers. Eden remained a radical all his life and after Harris’ death, he helped edit and bring to publication a Harris manuscript, published in 1999 as The Transformation of Capitalist Society in the late 1990s. As one of the original members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, he was active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. As often as possible for the past 52 years, he spent summers at his second home in the town of Cherryfield, ME, where he welcomed family and friends. He lived the last ten years of his life in Tucson, Arizona. He was the oldest member of the University of Arizona Community Chorus and attended regular meetings with other free thinkers. He leaves a brother, Dr. Alvin Eden, NYC, NY, children, Abigail Eden of Cherryfield, ME, Susanna Eden of Tucson, AZ, Mark D. Eden of Taos, NM, Shirley H. McDaniel, Venice, FL, and John W. Hartle, Juneau, AK, and seven grandchildren.


Murray Eden

have a memory or condolence to add?

Stephen Branz

December 29, 2020

My wife, Emily Young, and I were tutors (Runkle entry, 1975-78) during Murray & Pat's final years in Senior House as Housemasters. They were both the kindest and most generous friends and mentors to us. Emily and I are both from Maine, so we took special pleasure in visiting with them at their Cherryfield second home. Along life's path, we are fortunate if/when we meet people who serve as inspirational examples for wisdom, kindness, and generosity of spirit. We count both Pat and Murray among those few who have influenced us and helped us grow. Even though we never saw either of them after we left MIT and Boston for jobs/careers in London and the Bay Area (CA), we missed them and often recalled them fondly (often at Steer Roast!).

Robert Barsky

September 1, 2020

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Murray Eden on a number of occasions, in regards to his work with the student Zionist organization Avukah. Murray could recall with great detail his involvement with the group (in the early 1940s), and he offered an array of humorous anecdotes about the many friendships and loves that he formed along the way. For his kindness, his wit, his generosity and his brilliance, I'll always be grateful to Murray, and I send all who knew him my deepest condolences.

Larry Kilham

August 23, 2020

I was the research assistant to Prof. Eden at MIT in the 1960s. His office was in building 20, a creaky WW II left-over that was the paradise for creative people. No part of the structure was sacred, so you could plumbing, wiring, equipment anywhere to pursue your creative whims.

He patiently mentored me while I tried to jointly develop with him a mathematical method for uniquely coding the identity of organic molecules. I piled up heaps of computer output based on various trial algorithms and data sets. He always smiled, puffed on his cigar, and would say, "Well let's try this..."

Murray was a great scientist, educator, and human being. They don't seem to make them like him anymore.