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Warren Sturgis McCulloch

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Warren Sturgis McCulloch
Born(1898-11-16)16 November 1898
Orange, New Jersey, United States
Died24 September 1969(1969-09-24) (aged 70)
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materYale University
Columbia University
Known forHeterarchy
AwardsWiener Gold Medal (1968)
Scientific career
Artificial neural network
Computer Science
InstitutionsMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Yale University
University of Illinois at Chicago
Notable studentsStafford Beer

Warren Sturgis McCulloch (November 16, 1898 – September 24, 1969) was an American neurophysiologist and cybernetician, known for his work on the foundation for certain brain theories and his contribution to the cybernetics movement.[1] Along with Walter Pitts, McCulloch created computational models based on mathematical algorithms called threshold logic which split the inquiry into two distinct approaches, one approach focused on biological processes in the brain and the other focused on the application of neural networks to artificial intelligence.[2]


Warren Sturgis McCulloch was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1898. His brother was a chemical engineer and Warren was originally planning to join the Christian ministry. As a teenager he was associated with the theologians Henry Sloane Coffin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Herman Karl Wilhelm Kumm and Julian F. Hecker. He was also mentored by the Quaker, Rufus Jones.[3] He attended Haverford College and studied philosophy and psychology at Yale University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1921. He continued to study psychology at Columbia and received a Master of Arts degree in 1923. Receiving his MD in 1927 from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, he undertook an internship at Bellevue Hospital, New York. Then he worked under Eilhard von Domarus at the Rockland State Hospital for the Insane.[4] He returned to academia in 1934. He worked at the Laboratory for Neurophysiology at Yale University from 1934 to 1941.

In 1941 he moved to Chicago and joined the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was a professor of psychiatry, as well as the director of the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute until 1951.[5] From 1952 he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Norbert Wiener. He was a founding member of the American Society for Cybernetics and its second president during 1967–1968. He was a mentor to the British operations research pioneer Stafford Beer.

McCulloch had a 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.

McCulloch married Ruth Metzger, known as 'Rook', in 1924 and they had three children.[6] He died in Cambridge in 1969.


He is remembered for his work with Joannes Gregorius Dusser de Barenne from Yale[7] and later with Walter Pitts from the University of Chicago. He 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 published in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics. The former is "widely credited with being a seminal contribution to neural network theory, the theory of automata, the theory of computation, and cybernetics".[1]

McCulloch was the chair of the set of Macy conferences dedicated to Cybernetics. These, greatly due to the diversity of the backgrounds of the participants McCulloch brought in, became the foundation for the field.

Neural network modelling[edit]

In the 1943 paper McCulloch and Pitts 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[8]), 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 McCulloch worked at the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, 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.

Reticular formation[edit]

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"[9] was developed by von Foerster and Pask in their study of self-organization[10] and by Pask in his Conversation Theory and Interactions of Actors Theory.[11]


McCulloch wrote a book and several articles:[12]

  • 1965, Embodiments of Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge,
  • 1993, The Complete Works of Warren S. McCulloch. Intersystems Publications: Salinas, CA.

Articles, a selection:

Papers published by the Chicago Literary Club:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ken Aizawa (2004), "McCulloch, Warren Sturgis". In: Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind. Retrieved May 17, 2008.
  2. ^ McCulloch, Warren; Walter Pitts (1943). "A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity". Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics. 5 (4): 115–133. doi:10.1007/BF02478259.
  3. ^ McCulloch, Warren (1961). "What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a Number". General Semantics Bulletin (26 & 27): 7–18.
  4. ^ Abraham, Tara H. (2002). "(Physio)logical circuits: The intellectual origins of the McCulloch-Pitts neural networks". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 38 (1): 3–25. doi:10.1002/jhbs.1094. ISSN 0022-5061. PMID 11835218.
  5. ^ Smalheiser, Neil (2000). "Walter Pitts". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 43 (43, 2): 217–226. doi:10.1353/pbm.2000.0009. PMID 10804586. S2CID 8757655.
  6. ^ H., Abraham, Tara (2016-10-28). Rebel genius : Warren S. McCulloch's transdisciplinary life in science. Cambridge, Massachusetts. ISBN 9780262035095. OCLC 946160418.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ "Joannes Gregorius Dusser de Barenne". Yale J Biol Med. 12 (6): 742.2–746. 1940. PMC 2602446. PMID 21433922.
  8. ^ see: S.C. Kleene, "Representations of Events in Nerve Nets and Finite Automata"
  9. ^ Some Mechanisms For A Theory of the Reticular Formation
  10. ^ "A Predictive Model for Self-Organizing Systems", Part I: Cybernetica 3, pp. 258–300; Part II: Cybernetica 4, pp. 20–55, 1961 Heinz von Foerster and Gordon Pask
  11. ^ Gordon Pask (1996). Heinz von Foerster's Self-Organisation, the Progenitor of Conversation and Interaction Theories
  12. ^ His papers now reside in the manuscripts collection of the American Philosophical Society.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch's Transdisciplinary Life in Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).
  • New York Times (1969), Obituaries, September 25.
  • Crevier, Daniel (1993), AI: The Tumultuous Search for Artificial Intelligence, BasicBooks, New York, NY.