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Century mark approaches for two professors emeriti

A lot can happen in a lifetime, especially when it stretches to 100 years or more.

And so it is that two retired MIT professors, who turn 100 within a few days of each other this month, can look back on lives filled with accomplishment and, in one case, controversy.

They are Charles Fayette Taylor, professor emeritus of automotive engineering, and Dirk J. Struik, professor emertuts of mathematics. They came to MIT in the same year-1926-and both retired in 1960.

Professor Taylor, known to all by his middle name or as "Fay," was a pioneer in the development of the internal combustion engine, especially those used in aircraft, and was personally acquainted with Orville Wright. His dual career as a painter and, more recently, as a sculptor in metal, also brought him acclaim. Professor Taylor lived for many years in Boston (he remembers skiing across the frozen Charles River to MIT) and later in Brookline. Although he was active until a few years ago, he is frail now, living in a Weston retirement home with his wife of 40 years, Alice, who is 96. His nurse, Eileen O'Shea, reads to him and takes him on walks in his wheelchair. He and his first wife had two sons, Charles, who died in 1988, and Philip, a retired businessman who lives in California. Members of his family, which includes 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, visit him frequently, although he said he most misses being with them when they stay at his summer home in Rockport. "He is really a great man," his wife says. A former social worker and guidance counselor, she was involved in humanitarian causes with Professor Taylor, among them raising scholarship funds for some 2,000 young Boston minority students and guiding them to colleges. Some 150 people will gather at the retirement home for Professor Taylor's 100th birthday on September 24.

Professor Struik, renowned as a mathematician and as an historian of mathematics, saw his name leap into headlines in the 1950s when his outspoken Marxist views led to his indictment on charges of advocating the overthrow of the United States and Massachusetts governments. The charges were eventually dropped and he was restored to the MIT faculty after a five-year paid suspension. He is vigorous and alert, living alone in his Belmont home and even driving his 1975 Ford Mustang around town on occasion. He walks with friends, but now sometimes uses a "stick." His wife of 70 years, Saly Ruth, also a mathematician and accomplished dancer, died last year at the age of 99. He has three daughters, Rebecca, a mathematics professor at the University of Colorado; Ann Macchi of Arlington, a retired teacher, and Gwendolyn Bray of New Zealand, an ecologist, all of whom keep in close touch. There are also 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He has continued his scholarly work and still contributes reviews to professional journals. The mathematics department will honor him at a dinner on September 28, and he will deliver a "centenary lecture" at Brown University on his 100th birthday on September 30. In October, he will fly to Amsterdam, Holland, where friends and colleagues have organized a symposium to discuss aspects of his his work and at which he will give a talk.

Both men express some pessimism about the future, brought about in part by the technological achievements of the 20th century.

Professor Taylor has written of "the despoilation of nature involved in nearly every aspect of technological development," along with "the problem of population growth and control."

Professor Struik conditions some of his remarks about society's future with the phrase, "provided the earth will prevail." He adds, "We now have to consider the safety of the earth," also naming environmental degredation and population growth as the greatest threats.

Neither centenarian offers any particular secret to longevity. Both have been pipe smokers, but they took the occasion of their interviews to caution against smoking.

On becoming 100, Professor Taylor remarks, "I don't recommend it." Professor Struik says, "I can't help it, but it's true."

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 4).

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