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William T. Peake, PhD
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Dr. William T. Peake, PhD
(1929- 2017)

Dr. William T. Peake, long-time Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Research Associate of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) 



Dr. William T. Peake, long-time Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Research Associate of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) passed away September 11, 2017, in Blue Hill Maine, in the company of his family.  Bill (a faithful Cubs fan) was born outside Chicago IL November 26 1929, and because of his skill with math, was admitted into MIT in 1947.  Bill graduated MIT with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1951, and a Masters of Science in 1953.  After three years in the Air Force, he returned to MIT for his doctoral studies, which he completed in 1960.  Bill’s thesis was titled “An analytical study of electrical responses at the periphery of the auditory system” and was supervised by Walter Rosenblith, Moise Goldstein and Nelson Y-S Kiang.  His association with Kiang began a long and fruitful collaboration that helped define the research direction of the newly formed Eaton-Peabody Laboratory of Auditory Physiology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) for 50 years.  From the beginning until the end of his career, Bill’s primary research interest was to understand how sounds were conducted from the environment to the inner ear and how those conducted sounds were transformed into the neural signals sent to the brain.  His research interest also included the study and understanding of how the ears of different animal species helped shaped the sounds that were heard by those animals.


Simultaneous with the start of his post-graduate research career Bill took on significant academic responsibilities within the Department of Electrical Engineering at MIT, where he was named Assistant Professor in 1959, Associate Professor in 1964, and Professor in 1972.  Bill’s academic duties included a substantial amount of teaching, course development and student advising.  His course “Biophysics of Neuroelectric Potentials” helped provide background for a generation of MIT engineering students interested in biology.  He was an early advocate for the need for biomedical engineering at MIT and was named a Professor within the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in 1979.  Bill was also one of the founding members of the Speech and Hearing Science Program that became part of the Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) in 1992, and later evolved into the present day Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology (SHBT) program within the Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard.


The intersection of Bill’s academic and research roles helped him bring students into the laboratory at the MEEI, including: Russ Pffeifer, Mike Wiederhold, Murray Sachs, John Guinan Jr., Laurel Carney, and Susan Voss; many of whom went on to significant research and teaching careers.  Bill also developed significant interactions with other young MIT faculty, notably Tom Weiss.  Together, Tom and Bill lead a group that performed the first intracellular recordings from vertebrate auditory sensory cells, and also produced the first data-based analytic description of the entire auditory periphery of a vertebrate.


In 1990, toward the end of his full-time teaching career, Bill took a 6-month sabbatical during which he studied comparative biology and evolution at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Biology.  This experience led Bill to start a comparative study of the structure and sound collection function of the ears of the 36 species within the family of cats.  The highlight was a series of non-invasive functional measurements, performed with an Electrical-Engineering doctoral student at zoos and animal centers throughout the country that gathered data from living members of over 20 different cat species.  One of the noteworthy findings of this work was that differences in ear structure lead to functional differences, both of which correlated with differences in the climate within the geographic range of the animal.  This work was the basis of an MIT doctoral thesis (Greg Huang) and multiple publications.  Bill also spent a significant part of his research effort working on projects that resulted from direct interactions with ear surgeons and clinicians at the MEEI.  Notable in this regard are his work with Pierre Montandon (later ENT Chairman at Geneva Switzerland) on measurements of auditory evoked potentials as an office procedure, the thesis work of an HST-SHBT student (Susan Voss) on the effects of perforations of the eardrum on hearing function, and how certain conductive hearing losses may interfere with normal hearing testing.  A significant part of this work was done together with his long-term collaborators John Rosowski and Saumil N. Merchant, and a cadre of post-doctoral fellows including Heidi Nakajima and Sunil Puria.  Bill retired from research in 2014.


Bill married Helen Carr of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1952. They were together for almost 50 years until her death in 2002, living most of that time in Newton, Massachusetts.  Bill is survived by his two sons Andy (of Penobscot, Maine) and Geoffrey (of Cincinnati, Ohio), his daughter-in-law Janet Baumann (Daksha) of Penobscot and five grand children: Mitchell Peake of Cincinnati, Caroline Peake of San Francisco, California, Emily Peake of Northampton, Massachusetts, Phineas Peake of Penobscot, and Alida Peake of Penobscot.


Those fortunate to know Bill appreciated his keen observations, sharp wit, old jokes and entertaining stories.  These characteristics made him a wonderful teacher, and made interactions with him a joy.  A celebration of Bill’s life will be held at the MIT Chapel (48 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139) on Monday 4-December-2017 at 2 PM.  For more information, please contact John Rosowski by phone at 617-573-4237, or email at


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