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Warren S. McCulloch

Warren S. McCulloch, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

Warren Sturgis McCulloch (1898-1969) was one of the founders of cybernetics. He had a remarkable interdisciplinary education, studying theology, philosophy, psychology, and mathematical physics, and also receiving an MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He did pioneering research in computational and biological computers, as well as basic research in neural structures and function, biological psychiatry, chemical warfare, and space biology. His fundamental interest, however, was the relationship between physiology (including perception) and thought. He wanted to develop an “experimental epistemology” with which to relate mind and brain. Together with Walter Pitts, he developed a compact mathematical model for understanding neural relationships, thus laying foundational principles for cybernetics.

Following stints at Yale (1935-1941) and the University of Illinois College of Medicine (1941-1948), McCulloch joined the staff of the Electronics Research Laboratory at MIT, where he remained for the rest of his career. In addition to his work chairing the Macy Conferences, McCulloch, from his base at MIT, continued to be a leading force in establishing cybernetics. In recognition of his earlier work and especially his chairing of the meetings sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, McCulloch was declared an honorary founder and became the first elected president of the American Society for Cybernetics in 1964.

The American Philosophical Society holds the Warren S. McCulloch Papers, which include correspondence and papers centering on McCulloch’s study of the functional organization of the central nervous system and cybernetics. The papers document McCulloch’s role in establishing the theoretical ground for modern computers and in “biological computer” studies during the 1960s. Other topics include brain or neural studies, biological psychiatry, chemical warfare, space biology, and U.S. Army studies. His participation in the American Society for Cybernetics and the Macy Conferences is well documented, and there are numerous papers and notes on other conferences attended.

A portion of the Warren S. McCulloch Papers were digitized as a part of this project.