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Nelson Kiang, groundbreaking researcher at Mass Eye and Ear, dies at 93

Nelson Kiang, former director of Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Mass Eye and Ear.Mass Eye and Ear

As an immigrant from China, and as a scientist and educator, Nelson Yuan-sheng Kiang bridged divides between engineering and medicine as he broke ground in his research into how humans hear.

Proficient in many roles, he held appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School, and was founding director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Mass Eye and Ear. Often he found himself cast as a sort of translator — helping those in different disciplines understand and work well with each other.

“You might say that I’m a linguist in science, because I find it easy to communicate with clinicians, engineers, biologists, and psychologists,” he said in a 1989 interview with RLE Currents, a publication of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

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“Even though science and medicine don’t have the same mission,” he added, “they do overlap somewhat.”

Dr. Kiang, an auditory physiology pioneer who accomplished as much as he did partly because he famously needed little sleep, died March 19 in his Beacon Hill home. He was 93 and his health had been failing, said his son, Peter Nien-chu Kiang, a professor and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

About 60 years ago, Dr. Kiang pioneered the understanding of how sounds are transformed into electronic impulses “that end up exciting the nerve fibers in the auditory nerve,” said Charles Liberman, who succeeded his mentor as director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories, which he led from 1996 until 2022.

“He was the first person to really try to systematically describe what the rules are,” Liberman said.

Working first with normal hearing, Dr. Kiang later focused on “damaged ears,” Liberman added. “He was interested in what went wrong when we have hearing loss.”

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Dr. Kiang’s research ultimately helped form some of the foundation for other research into hearing, including the design and refinement of hearing aids and cochlear implants, where scientists and engineers need to understand the auditory mechanics he studied.

Six decades ago, he also helped lead the way in using computers to store and analyze neuroscience data, so measurements could be studied “down to the microseconds,” Liberman said.

“And he was very passionate about scientific rigor and clarity of thought. He thought too many people looked at their data and saw what they wanted to see,” said Liberman, who had studied under Dr. Kiang as a graduate student.

“An important aspect of him is that he prided himself on being brutally frank. That was part of his rigor and clarity,” said Liberman said, who added: “I recognized him as the smartest guy I ever met.”

Born in Wuxi, China, on July 6, 1929, Dr. Kiang was the second of three siblings whose parents were Yi-seng Kiang, a diplomat for the Republic of China, and Shih-ying Kiang, who managed the running of consulates at her husband’s postings.

Dr. Kiang was 5 when his family moved to the United States, where he grew up in Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle.

At the University of Chicago, he graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree, and in 1955, he received the first-ever doctorate in biopsychology, according to Harvard Medical School.

That year he joined the research staff at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. Subsequently, he was the first appointment to the newly formed Eaton-Peabody Laboratories, which philanthropist Amelia Peabody, a former Mass Eye and Ear board member, helped establish.

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Dr. Kiang directed the Mass Eye and Ear-based lab until 1996, guiding to world prominence its research into auditory mechanics and how to address hearing loss and deafness.

From his earliest days at the Research Laboratory of Electronics, he found a niche as someone who could conduct important research and bring together colleagues from different disciplines.

As Dr. Kiang told RLE Currents, he was fluent in the research languages of all his colleagues and could bridge the “big cultural difference between science and medicine then, which remains to this day. The duty of medicine is to care for sick people, and that of science is to find out how the universe works.”

And because he had faculty appointments at MIT and Harvard Medical School, “I take two different views,” he said of his research.

“At MIT, we tend to think of the brain as an information processing machine,” he said. “At Harvard, we think of the brain as a wet organ full of active chemicals. Both views are correct, and by understanding both, one gains a more complex perspective.”

Dr. Kiang’s first marriage, to Madlyn Rowe, an administrative assistant, ended in divorce. They had one son, Peter.

He later married Barbara Norris, who had worked in the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories.

A service will be announced for Dr. Kiang, who in addition to his wife and son leaves a stepdaughter, Pamela Raab, a psychotherapist in New York City, and a grandson.

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At one point, Dr. Kiang’s habit of sleeping only four hours a night drew media attention.

“My father used to say I’d burn myself out. But since I made it to 60, he now says I’ve lived twice as long as most people,” Dr. Kiang told the Globe in 1989, adding that he preferred watching TV to sitting in a movie theater because that allowed him to watch, eat, read, and converse with his wife simultaneously.

Dr. Kiang devoted many of his extra hours to reading the thousands of books that filled his Beacon Hill townhouse.

“Every inch was just piles of books and he read all of them,” his son said. “So he was able to think about and talk about any topic — from any time period, from anywhere in the world, from the cell level to cosmology.”

Peter said his father had set aside some 2,000 books to donate to the Boston Public Library’s Chinatown branch, and hundreds more for the Josiah Quincy Upper School, which is under construction in Chinatown.

“He wouldn’t use these words, but his love language was books,” Peter said.

In recent years, Dr. Kiang was troubled by the rise in anti-Asian hatred and violence, the kind of bigotry he recalled from his boyhood, when he and others wore “I am Chinese” buttons after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as Japanese Americans were attacked and sent to internment camps.

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During the pandemic, “he was a very vulnerable target, as a very slow-walking Asian elder,” Peter said.

In an unassuming gesture, Dr. Kiang insisted that his portrait in Mass Eye and Ear’s gallery of prominent figures reflect who he was. On a wall of many white men wearing suits and lab coats, “Nelson is in khakis and a shirt, pocket protector full of pens,” Liberman said.

At the conclusion of the RLE Currents interview, Dr. Kiang spoke about his legacy as a researcher and a teacher.

“It’s not so important for anyone to remember me as it is for them to support the ideas that I stand for,” Dr. Kiang said.

“I don’t think being remembered is nearly as important as imparting to students the values that one holds dear — the intellectual integrity, dedication to scholarship, and a sense of quality in one’s work,” he said. “I think that’s the best legacy to leave them, and they should pass it on — like a virus that becomes part of our genetic heritage.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.