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A Great Adrenaline Rush: Paul E. Newton ’65, SM ’67


Paul and Lilah Newton hiking in Switzerland. Paul and Lilah Newton hiking in Switzerland.

Although computers first attracted Paul Newton to MIT as a student; now, nearly 50 years later, it is the human computer—the brain—that captivates Newton and brings him back.

Because Newton and his wife, Lilah, each had a parent who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, he witnessed firsthand what happens when a brain malfunctions. But “how does the brain function normally?” he wanted to know.  Newton read books and papers but found some areas unexplored. So he developed his own hypotheses on how the brain directs its attention, makes decisions, and handles deductive versus inferential thinking—but he wanted to know more.

Newton found that MIT’s expertise made the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) most likely to achieve breakthroughs in areas that interested him. “When we know enough about the way the brain works to cure related diseases and perhaps enhance the way we use our brains,” Newton says, “that will mean wonders for progress in every field.”

Newton loves having a close relationship with faculty at MIT.  “Hearing about new research as it’s developing, even before it’s published, gives me a great adrenaline rush,” he says. Recently, for example, Mriganka Sur, BCS Department Head and the Newton Professor of Neuroscience, told Newton about the promising development of a treatment for Rett syndrome, one of the autism-like disorders.

The Newtons began their support of BCS shortly after selling the last of Newton’s three software companies. As he tells it, he had just decided to fund a career development (CD) chair and was about to contact the dean of Science to tell him when, coincidentally, a “Tech Caller” student called him at home. The student was a bit of a wiseacre and said that since Newton was a CEO, he should contribute a million dollars or more. “Fine,” Newton said, “have the dean call me and I will!” The student didn’t know whether Newton was joking or if he really had just convinced someone to make a spur-of-the-moment million dollar gift! It became a big story among student fund-raisers.

For the last eight years, Newton has served on the BCS Visiting Committee. The CD chair, established in 2000, was the Newtons’ first significant gift. They have since helped BCS by funding research projects and equipment purchases. They continue to fund their CD chair and recently brought it to the level of a full professorship.

Some of Newton’s favorite MIT experiences have been hosting events where a small group of alumni get together to hear from a key MIT professor. “I get five minutes to kick off the meeting and get a bunch of engineers and physicists to relate their knowledge to some cutting-edge brain science research. If MIT staff and alumni can get others really interested in what’s going on, that’s the best gift we can give.”