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Lawrence Stark

Professor of Physiological Optics and Engineering, Emeritus





Lawrence Stark, in the vernacular of his immigrant grandparents, was a mensch. He was interested in everything: science, engineering, neurology, economics, vision, birds, painting and, above all, people. To the extent this is given to any mortal, he was in control of his destiny. He had a strong sense of humor and, based on a prodigious memory, was always ready to provide a basic, pointed, and serious laugh.


A native of New York City, he received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in English and zoology, in three instead of the usual four years. Although his interest at the time was in science, destiny in the form of WWII guided him into Albany Medical College as part of a U.S. Navy program. He matriculated, despite frequent sojourns in nearby Bennington, and served as a medical officer on a destroyer in the Pacific theater after hostilities had ended. Upon his return to the U.S.A., he took a neurology residency at Yale University. At the time he also attended electrical engineering classes on new, developing concepts in control theory. He was virtually indefatigable.


Larry advanced to assistant professor of medicine at Yale and started a research program applying engineering principles to bodily functions, what might be considered the beginning of the field of bioengineering control theory. His original concept of opening the loop in the pupillary light reflex by configuring a beam of light to a spot in the center of the pupil was the beginning of a long list of new concepts and terms.


His new ideas, young, optimistic, enthusiastic, and infused with humor, brought him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he bonded with graduate engineering students who worked with him and went on to become professors at MIT and elsewhere, here and abroad. He organized courses on biological control systems with laboratory demonstrations and pioneered in the applications of computers to neurophysiology.


Larry went on to head a department of bioengineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, until we called him to the University of California, Berkeley as a professor of physiological optics. Before long he also appeared as a professor of engineering science on the Berkeley campus and a professor of neurology on the University of California, San Francisco campus.


Larry’s wide range of personal interests, from painting to history of science to botany, led to his “scan path” ideas for eye movement patterns. More importantly, he encouraged his students to get involved in fields well outside their immediate area of expertise. It is a testimony to his breadth of interests that his former graduate students now have professional careers spread over a wide array of disciplines.


He had a genuine interest in learning about cultural differences, and this endeared him to all his foreign students. He was also known for his vast collection of jokes. He had an apt joke for every occasion, and used it to break the ice and make his visitors feel at home.


Larry had over 400 publications in a career spanning more than 50 years. Most were with his students, but a substantial number were the fruits of long-term collaborations. The papers reflect the life of an active mind and a lifetime of creative curiosity. Larry published in a wide variety of fields. His own categories included neurology, the pupillary reflex, ocular accommodation, head movements, muscle control, telerobotics and virtual environments, and bioengineering, and his works include a substantial list in each area.


Larry first made his mark by applying feedback control theory to biology. In the spirit of his theoretical mentors, Warren McCulloch and Norbert Wiener, but with an experimentalist’s eye for detail, he analyzed the pupil’s light reflex as a servomechanism. This groundbreaking work of the late 1950s initiated a fresh view of motor control, and opened a new arena to bioengineering. Theories of information and control became lifelong passions, applied to an ever-expanding circle of problems, from the pupil to the lens, to vergence and saccadic eye movements, to head movements. Larry became a leading investigator in control of every aspect of eye, head and gaze movements. Characteristic of his contributions was the imaginative application of engineering principles to complex neurological problems, a founding definition of the then new field of bioengineering.


Although the majority of Larry’s career was in basic science, clinical application was also a sustained interest. Larry’s ‘Neurology Section’, often consisting of himself, a student and one or two leading clinical neurologists and ophthalmologists, investigated many aspects of eye movement and gaze disorders.


Larry was a pioneer in using computers for data collection, and he had a passion for computation and for mathematical models. His experimental work was always guided by a parallel modeling effort. New theoretical advances drove him to search for practical applications. Even though he did not have a formal background in engineering, his sound intuition led him and many of his students through thought and simulation experiments in control theory, information theory, white noise analysis of nonlinear systems and Markov chain models. He absorbed much about engineering from his students.


Telerobotics became a central interest in the early 1980s, and Larry’s close connection to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory led to applications in computer vision, remote sensing, and computer-aided surgery. Related studies in virtual environments and the visual display of information occupied his scientific interest late in life. Research excited him to his final days, and his delight in the prospect of writing a novel paper remained undiminished.


Larry was legendary for the close, long-term relationships that he had with his former students and research colleagues. At any given time, there were typically seven or eight students from all parts of the world in his laboratory, and he made them all feel that they were part of his family. For many of them, his house became a home away from home when they periodically came back to visit for a day or to spend a few weeks in his lab. He literally never shut the door to his office, and graduate students felt that they could talk to him freely not only about their research but also about their personal lives. His students felt that he was a lifelong friend and it was no surprise that his memorial service drew scores of former students including several from Europe and Asia. Always, Larry was obsessed with having lots of progeny. He was the proud father of three daughters, and doted over them and their children.



Elwin Marg

V. V. Krishnan

Steven L. Lehman