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Yale 62

Toby Berger

September 4, 1940–May 25, 2022

Toby Berger passed away on May 25, 2022, in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, at the age of 82. He was born in New York City on September 4, 1940, the son of Doris and Henry Berger, and matriculated at Yale from Freeport High School on Long Island.

His roommate Gil Daniels reports that: “Toby was initially rejected by Yale but when he won a Grumman scholarship (which not only paid room and board but also gave an equal amount to Yale), Yale reconsidered. …Toby was the smartest person I’ve met,” and “Polymath would not be a bad term to describe Toby.” [Ed. note: For context, Gil was a Phi Beta Kappa.] An Electrical Engineering major, Toby also won the Freshman English prize and the Sophomore History prize, as well the Silliman Fellows Scholarship Award; he was a Ranking Scholar for three years, two of them with Honors. Gil says that “as he finished preparing for the final exam in each course he would fill a “blue book” with what he considered the “grape” (essence) of the course.”

Toby was a resident in Silliman until his senior year when he then lived off-campus with his wife, Florence Cohen, whom he married August 27, 1961. In sophomore year, Dave Kupferstein (now Kupfer) and Sandy Avner also roomed with him. He was a member of Silliman’s basketball team, as well as of Tau Beta Pi, where he served as Treasurer, and Hillel. Bill Weber said “I first met Toby in our senior year when we joined a “secret” society of engineers. Our “society” met frequently and I got to know Toby very well indeed, with many confidential stories of our lives before and at Yale.” Those meetings led to a lifelong friendship of the two families.

Toby spent 37 years at Cornell University teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, after earning his MS (’64) and PHD (’66) at Harvard. In the ‘90s he founded DISCOVERY Lab to conduct research on practical ways of videoconferencing over telephone lines. In 2017, with a former grad student he co-founded Cayuga Wireless, a Wi-Fi networks technology company. In 2006 Toby joined the faculty of the University of Virginia, where he taught until his retirement in 2019.

(Click on images for larger versions and their captions.)

His distinguished career in information theory spanned over 50 years. His seminal textbook Rate Distortion Theory: A Mathematical Basis for Data Compression (Prentice-Hall, 1971) is still a helpful reference. He pioneered the joining of Biology and Information Theory, and developed and taught the first graduate course on the joined fields at any university. He was one of the icons of information theory, recognized with numerous awards.

Perhaps because of his recognized interest in History, he and Florence collected many fine indigenous masks from around the world. His professional interest led to a two-month visit to the University of Osaka in Japan, and in the 1980s he was invited to give a series of lectures at the South China Institute of Technology. Toby was also known for his harmonica playing before finals and for providing Florence’s freshly baked cookies after finals.

At the time of his passing, IEEE noted: “We will miss his brilliance and vision, his storytelling ability, and his presence at our conferences: sometimes complete with a musical performance, and always with a beaming smile.” Gil’s summary is: “Toby was a wonderful person. He was no-nonsense, thoughtful, logical, honest and loyal with a wonderful sense of humor.”

Toby is survived by wife, Florence, two children and four grandchildren. He was proud that his daughter Elizabeth and son Lawrence ‘90 followed him at Yale, as did grandchild Joshua Mandell of the class of ’16.


— John D. Hatch III