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William T. Peake, former HST faculty, dies at 87

Monday, November 20, 2017

William T. Peake, a longtime faculty member in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) Program and in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, passed away on September 11, 2017 while in the company of his family. Peake was also a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI).

Professor Peake spent over 40 years of his scientific career at MIT, starting as an undergraduate student in what was then the Electrical Engineering department, where he earned both his SB (1951) and SM (1953). He earned his PhD in 1960, and then moved up through the ranks of the department, ultimately becoming a full professor in 1972. When Peake began his graduate studies at MIT, he was given the choice to work as a research assistant or a teaching assistant. At the time, he didn’t know what differentiated those roles, but even so, he answered the inquiry simply as “teaching.” Professor Peake had a profound impact on his students, not only as a research mentor, but also through his contributions to curriculum development and student advising.

Peake’s “Biophysics of Neuroeletric Potentials” course became the foundation for engineering students who wished to apply their knowledge to the field of biology. Subsequently, Professor Peake was an early advocate for the genesis of a biomedical engineering program at MIT and became a Professor of HST in 1979. Peake, along with his MIT faculty colleague, Nelson Y-S Kiang, was one of the founding members of the Speech and Hearing Sciences program that lived under the HST umbrella from 1992 until 2012. That program is currently offered by Harvard Medical School as the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology (SHBT) program. 

Peake’s primary research interest was auditory physiology, and his collaboration with Kiang helped direct the research of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratory of Auditory Physiology at MEEI for 50 years. One of his notable achievements during his tenure at MEEI was his collaborative work with Pierre Montandon on measurements of auditory evoked potentials as an office procedure. This study informed the thesis work of 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. Peake also lead a group of MIT faculty that performed the first intracellular recordings from vertebrate auditory sensory cells; he also produced the first data-based analytic description of the entire auditory periphery of a vertebrate. He retired from research in 2014.

Peake was born outside of Chicago, IL, on November 26, 1929. He married Helen Carr of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1952 and they were together for almost 50 years until her death in 2002. He 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.

According to his colleagues, Professor Peake was characterized by his keen observations, sharp wit, old jokes, and entertaining stories—attributes that made him highly respected and beloved. A celebration of his life will be held at the MIT Chapel (48 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139) on Monday, December 4, 2017 at 2 PM.