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Lawrence Stark, professor emeritus of physiological optics and engineering, dies at 78

– Dr. Lawrence W. Stark, a professor emeritus of physiological optics and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who was recognized worldwide as a pioneer in the use of control and information theory to characterize neurological systems, died Friday, Oct. 22.

Stark died of cancer at his home in Berkeley at the age of 78, four years after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Lawrence Stark
Lawrence Stark (Photo courtesy the Stark family)

"Stark's death is a huge loss for the world of optometry," said Dennis Levi, dean of UC Berkeley's School of Optometry. "His landmark studies on eye movement control truly advanced the field of vision science."

A neurologist by training, Stark is credited for seminal research that applied engineering principles, particularly control theory, to biological systems.

"Stark was unique in his ability to identify aspects of engineering analysis relevant to medicine and biology," said Laurence Young, Apollo Program professor of astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stark's first graduate student at MIT. "A perfect example is the seminal work he conducted in analyzing the way a pupil reacts to light in terms of a linear control system."

Young pointed out that those same principles have been applied to such areas as pilot control of airplanes and spacecraft. "Characterizing how the eye moves and how the brain processes visual cues is essential to understanding how pilots control airplanes, and why people get motion sickness," he said.

In addition to analyzing the feedback control system governing pupil contractions, Stark also developed the scan path theory of eye movements. He studied the way people's brains viewed the world and analyzed the vast number of jumping eye movements, or "saccades," people make. He noticed specific sequences to how people glimpsed a room, face or other scene before them, and realized how those sequences provided clues to the importance of pictures generated by the brain.

Stark's drive to understand visual processes within an engineering discipline led to his later research interests in robotic vision and virtual reality.

"Although he was trained in medicine, he was very interested in the physical sciences and engineering," said Gerald Westheimer, UC Berkeley professor of neurobiology. "He was a true crossover scientist, bringing applied engineering concepts to neurological functions, and the variables inherent in biology to engineering."

Stark was born in New York on Feb. 21, 1926. He credited his early interest in engineering to the influence of his father, an MIT-educated chemical engineer. He once recalled in an interview how, as a young boy, he took apart his mother's typewriter and put it back together again - minus four screws. His mother was impressed with his success, he said, until the typewriter stopped working a few weeks later.

Undaunted, Stark maintained his curiosity for how things work, going on to Columbia University and majoring in English, biology and zoology. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1945, he joined the military, taking the U.S. Navy up on its offer to pay for his medical school tuition. Stark went to New York's Albany Medical College, where he earned his M.D. in 1948.

He then spent two years in England at Oxford University and University College, conducting research in neurophysiology, biochemistry and biophysics, before returning to the U.S. Navy to serve as a doctor during the Korean War.

In 1954, after the war ended, Stark joined Yale University as an assistant professor of medicine. In 1960, he became head of the neurology section of MIT's Center for Communication Sciences, and in 1965, he founded and became chairman of the Biomedical Engineering Department, one of the country's first bioengineering departments, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"He was really one of the first people ever to use engineering theory to study a physiological system," said Blake Hannaford, director of the Biorobotics Laboratory at the University of Washington and one of Stark's former Ph.D. students. "He played a pivotal role in the 1950s and 1960s in founding the field of bioengineering."

Stark joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1968 with joint appointments as professor at the School of Optometry, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He also collaborated on neuro-ophthalmology research with colleagues at UC San Francisco.

He retired from UC Berkeley in 1994, but remained active in his lab on campus.

"He was always questioning, bringing up new ideas," said Elwin Marg, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of vision science and optometry and a close colleague of Stark's for nearly 50 years. "His enthusiasm and curiosity were an inspiration to his students."

So many of his students went on to distinguish themselves in academic careers that a scientific conference was held in his honor. In 1994, John Semmlow, a professor of bioengineering at Rutgers University in New Jersey and one of Stark's former students, organized the First International Conference on Vision and Movement in Man and Machine, a two-day symposium attended primarily by Stark's colleagues and former students and affectionately nicknamed "Starkfest."

Although research papers were presented at the conference and later published in peer-reviewed journals, including special issues of the Annals of Biomedical Engineering and Optometry and Vision Science, participants viewed the event as a chance to honor their former advisor and renew old friendships, said Semmlow.

"Stark maintained a strong bond with nearly all of his students," said Semmlow, one of two students from the University of Illinois who followed Stark to UC Berkeley. "He had an extremely dynamic personality. He was also extraordinarily intelligent, very well read, and he cast his interests in many different directions."

Two more Starkfest meetings have been held since 1994, most recently in Marseilles, France, in 2002.

Stark received numerous honors throughout his career, including an honorary Sc.D. from the State University of New York and an honorary Ph.D. from Tokushima University in Japan. He was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1968, a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1970, a recipient of the William J. Morlock Award in Biomedical Engineering in 1977, and a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering in 1992.

Stark is survived by his partner of 18 years, Jill Strohn of Berkeley, Calif.; three daughters, Stefanie Stark of Kensington, Calif., Nanou Matteson of Berkeley, Calif., and Elizabeth Stark of San Francisco; Elizabeth's mother, Wendy Bartlett of Berkeley, Calif.; ex-wife, Jeanne Stark-Iochmans of Berkeley, Calif.; his brother, Matthew of Minneapolis, Minn.; and four grandchildren.

Stark's first wife and Stefanie's mother, Jane Stark, died in 2001.

Memorial services at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club are being planned. When the exact date and time are available, they will be posted online. In lieu of flowers, donations in Stark's memory can be made to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Fund in Memory of Lawrence W. Stark, Attn: Audrey Yee, Fort Mason Building 201, San Francisco, CA 94123-0022. In accordance with Stark's wishes, the money will be used to purchase land that will be kept preserved and open to the public.

Related link:

Conversations with History: Lawrence Stark is interviewed by Harry Kreisler of UC Berkeley's Institute of International Studies