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John Wyatt, 69; pioneered retinal prosthetics at MIT

Dr. Wyatt “had a deep-seated interest in trying to help people,” his colleague Dr. Joseph Rizzo said.
Dr. Wyatt “had a deep-seated interest in trying to help people,” his colleague Dr. Joseph Rizzo said.Boston Retinal Implant Project

More than a decade after he started teaching electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Wyatt stepped into a classroom as a student, rather than as a professor. He had been there before, having graduated from MIT, but this time he sat clad in a shirt and tie among students half his age.

“The tendency of a busy place like MIT is to turn every faculty member into a research supervisor,” he told The New York Times in 1990, when he became an Adler Scholar, an appointment that allowed a faculty member to take a semester off from teaching and take classes as a student. “In some cases it’s not even that. In some cases you become just an administrator rather than a researcher, and it’s quite easy when you do that to leave all of the actual problem-solving to the graduate students.”

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He added: “I don’t want to be research supervisor particularly. I want to be a researcher.” Excelling at both, Dr. Wyatt taught at MIT for 36 years and helped found the field of retinal prosthetic research, working with Dr. Joseph Rizzo to launch the Boston Retinal Implant Project, and later the company Bionic Eye Technologies to turn their work into commercial products.

“He was a remarkable guy in a lot of ways, really a special intellect,” said Rizzo, the David G. Cogan professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. “He had a deep-seated interest in trying to help people.”

Dr. Wyatt, whose retinal implant research aimed to restore sight to those diagnosed with macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, died Feb. 3 in his Sudbury home from a form of Parkinson’s disease that was diagnosed in 2008. He was 69.

Near the end of the 1980s, Rizzo and Dr. Wyatt founded the implant project, a multidisciplinary team of biologists, clinicians, and engineers who worked to create a prosthesis that could be implanted under and in contact with the damaged retina of a visually impaired patient. A tiny camera mounted on eyeglasses transmits information to the prosthesis, which in turn stimulates nerve cells and sends images to the brain, bypassing the damaged retina.

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During early discussions of this concept, “I said, ‘That sounds really like science fiction,’ ” Dr. Wyatt said in an interview for the “Focus Forward: Short Films/Big Ideas” video series. “I spent about three months trying to think about why it couldn’t be done, and I really couldn’t find a reason it couldn’t be done. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot,’ and I’ve been at it for 23 years.”

David Perreault, associate head of the electrical engineering and computer science department, wrote in an e-mail to faculty that “John devoted his research to improving the quality of life for millions of people affected by blindness,” according to a tribute posted on MIT’s website.

Rizzo recalled that his collaboration with Dr. Wyatt lasted “for 29 years, and for a very, very long part of that time we spoke essentially every day, usually for long periods of time.”

Along with cofounding the project, Dr. Wyatt “also taught me a great deal about engineering. I got to see firsthand how good he was,” Rizzo said. “John had a remarkable capability of taking very complex material and making it understandable to someone who didn’t know that material. He was very gifted at that.”

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The older of two brothers, John Lanier Wyatt Jr. was born in Nashville to Dr. John L. Wyatt Sr. and the former Anne Carroll Galbraith.

“He grew up seeing his dad, an internist, make a difference in people’s lives,” Rizzo said. “But he decided going to medical school was not right for him.” Medical schools require lots of memorization, Rizzo added, and Dr. Wyatt “was really a forward thinker.”

That forward thinking was already apparent when Dr. Wyatt was a boy, setting up a chemistry set in his family’s basement. “He was from the South. He liked fireworks and fast cars,” said his wife, Christie Baxter, a retired principal research scientist in MIT’s department of urban studies and planning.

“Occasionally a puff or a smoke-emanating boom would come from the basement,” James Wyatt of Berlin recalled in remarks prepared for his brother’s retirement party in 2015. “Mom would call from the top of the stairs, ‘Jack, are you OK?’ The answer was always, ‘Yes, I just have to do it a bit different.’ ”

Dr. Wyatt, his brother added, succeeded in creating “a wide variety of firecrackers” and built a go-cart from scratch, welding pipes together for a frame, adding a lawn mower engine, and fine-tuning everything for greater speed. “If you blinked you couldn’t see him, two feet off the ground at 60 m.p.h.,” James wrote, “but you sure as hell could hear him!”

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After graduating from Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tenn., named for its original location on a Civil War site, Dr. Wyatt went to MIT, from which he graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

“He had very broad interests. He contemplated studying comparative literature, but he ended up at MIT,” his wife said. “He was very curious about how things worked and why things happened the way they did.”

Still, he took time to study philosophy in Munich, where he became fluent in German. Dr. Wyatt received a master’s in electrical engineering from Princeton University in 1970. During the Vietnam War, he served as a design engineer with the US Public Health Service.

In 1979, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a doctorate, also in electrical engineering, and joined the MIT faculty a few months later. He became a professor in 1990, and over the years served as a guest investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Wyatt, whose marriage to Susan Kelly ended in divorce, first encountered Baxter amid Formica tables in a windowless dining area. “We met in the early 1990s in the faculty lunchroom at MIT, which is about the most unromantic place where you could possibly meet anybody,” his wife recalled.

They married in 2003 and have a daughter, Julia. Dr. Wyatt also has a stepson, Andrew Cook. Both of their children live in Sudbury.

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A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in First Parish of Sudbury.

Dr. Wyatt’s interests were not confined to his classroom and laboratory. “He was sort of binary,” his wife said. “When he was at MIT, he was there. Then as soon as the vacations would come, he’d be gone.”

Trips took him hiking in the Austrian Alps and canoeing along the Green River in Utah. Rizzo recalled summers when Dr. Wyatt would rent a large house in Woods Hole and “quilt together large groups of friends, who would all stay there.” Some knew each other professionally, while others found themselves socializing with guests from different intellectual disciplines.

“He made time to get to know people and to bring people together that he found interesting,” Rizzo said. “That’s not so commonly done.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.