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President emeritus Jerome Wiesner is dead at 79

Jerome Bert Wiesner, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, former science adviser to President John F. Kennedy, and a leader for decades in shaping the nation's science and technology policies, died late Friday night (October 21) at his home in Watertown of heart failure. He was 79 years old.

A private family service was held Saturday. A memorial service will be held at MIT at a later date.

A leading voice for decades in international efforts to control and limit nuclear arms, he was a key figure in the Kennedy administration in the establishment of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in achieving a partial nuclear test ban treaty, and in the successful effort to restrict the deployment of antiballistic missile systems.

At MIT, as dean of science, provost, and ultimately as president from 1971 to 1980, Dr. Wiesner played a major role as the Institute expanded and strengthened its teaching and research programs in the health sciences, social sciences, humanities and the creative arts.

Dr. Wiesner was a man of science who was admired by both poets and politicians. In a poem composed in honor of his inauguration as MIT president in 1971, Archibald MacLeish wrote:

A good man! Look at him

there against the time!

He saunters along to his

place in the world's weather,

lights his pipe, hitches his pants,

talks back to accepted opinion.

Dr. Paul E. Gray, chairman of the MIT Corporation, who was chancellor during Dr. Wiesner's presidency and succeeded him as president, said:

"From his days as group leader and division head in the Radiation Laboratory more than 50 years ago, through his presidency in the '70s, to the last years in which he has been the intellectual champion of the Media Laboratory, Jerry Wiesner was single-minded in his desire and efforts to strengthen and improve his beloved MIT.

"This special place has benefited beyond acknowledgment from his fierce belief in the value of racial, ethnic and gender diversity in this community, from his insistence on intellectual quality in our programs, and from his vision of the ways in which science and technology and the arts and humanities reinforce each other.

"He was, throughout his career, deeply concerned with the development of human capabilities and was mentor to us all. The Institute is much diminished by his death, as am I, who had the great fortune to be his close colleague for 30 years."

President Charles M. Vest issued this statement:

"With Jerry Wiesner's death, the world has lost a great educator and scientific statesman, MIT has lost a memorable leader, and I have lost a personal hero.

"I knew Jerry well only during his later years, but it was a true privilege to know and work with a man of such vision. He did much to build and define MIT as an institution that extends and transcends its core of science and engineering through creative engagement with the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. In later years, his view of the future societal role of the electronic media profoundly affected our education and research.

"His influence was felt far beyond MIT through his role as President Kennedy's science adviser and as an adviser to corporations, foundations and academies. His life-long commitment to matters of international understanding, environmental policy, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation has made a profound difference in our world. I will miss him. We all will miss him."

Former MIT President Howard W. Johnson in 1966 appointed Dr. Wiesner as provost, the chief academic officer of MIT. When Mr. Johnson became chairman of MIT, Dr. Wiesner succeeded him as president. Mr. Johnson, whose interest in the arts also paralleled Dr. Wiesner's, issued this statement:

"Jerome Wiesner was a creative force at MIT for the last half century. With his great technical and social inventiveness, he made notable contributions in a number of fields as a professor, an administrator and a corporation member. Beyond MIT, he made significant impacts in arenas ranging from arms control to the arts. He will be deeply missed at MIT. And for those of us who worked with him closely for many years, the loss is immeasurable."

Long Career at MIT

Dr. Wiesner took office as MIT's 13th president on July 1, 1971, and served in that post until June 30, 1980, when he retired and resumed the title of Institute Professor, a position reserved for a handful of the Institute's most distinguished faculty, and which he had held from 1962 to 1971. He was also elected a life member of the MIT Corporation.

In his long career at MIT that began in 1942-Dr. Wiesner served as provost, dean of science, acting head of the then Department of Electrical Engineering and director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

After his retirement as president, Dr. Wiesner devoted himself to teaching and research in technical and policy areas related to science, technology, and society, with a strong emphasis on halting the arms race.

In February 1993, he collaborated with two other MIT scientists with long experience in the study of weapons and military policy-Institute Professor Philip Morrison and Dr. Kosta Tsipis-in calling for deep cuts in US military procurement and expenditures. They published their proposals in a booklet, "Beyond The Looking Glass: The United States Military in 2000 and Later."

Dr. Wiesner, who battled back from a severe stroke in 1989 and recovered his ability to speak and walk with relative ease, continued to be active in a broad range of MIT affairs. As one of the founders of the Media Laboratory, he maintained his scholarly interests in the educational and creative uses of computers in an electronic age. The Media Laboratory and the List Visual Arts Center are both located in the Wiesner Building, a structure dedicated to him and his wife Laya in 1985.

Within the scientific community, Dr. Wiesner was recognized as an authority on microwave theory, communication science and engineering, signal processing, radio and radar, military technology, disarmament, science policy and technical education.

During World War II, he was a leader in the development of radar, and later was one of the principals in the conception of radio transmission by scatter techniques from the earth's ionosphere. Working with the late Institute Professor Norbert Wiener, he stimulated a major MIT research and teaching effort in living and human-made information systems.

University of Michigan Years

Dr. Wiesner was born in Detroit, MI, on May 30, 1915, and grew up in Dearborn. He was educated in the Dearborn public schools and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received bachelor of science degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics in 1937, the master of science degree in electrical engineering in 1938, and the doctor of philosophy degree in electrical engineering in 1950.

As both an undergraduate and graduate student at Michigan, Dr. Wiesner was associate director of the university's radio broadcasting service. In addition, he participated in studies of acoustics and assisted in developing electronic techniques at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, MI.

It was at the University of Michigan that he met a fellow mathematics major, Laya Wainger of Johnstown, PA. They were married in 1940. That same year he was appointed chief engineer for the Acoustical and Record Laboratory of the Library of Congress. There, under a Carnegie Corporation grant, he assisted in developing recording facilities and equipment and traveled through the South and Southwest with the noted folklorist Alan Lomax, recording the folk music of the regions for the Library of Congress Archives.

Joined MIT's Radiation Lab

In 1942, shortly after the United States became involved in World War II, Dr. Wiesner joined the research staff at MIT's newly formed Radiation Laboratory, where he worked on the development of microwave radar. He became an associate member of the laboratory's steering committee and was later the leader of Project Cadillac, which developed an airborne radar system that was the forerunner of the present AWAC system.

In 1945, as the war came to an end, Dr. Wiesner briefly joined the staff at the University of California's Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, then returned to MIT in 1946 as assistant professor of electrical engineering. He was advanced to the rank of associate professor in 1947 and was made a full professor of electrical engineering in 1950.

From 1946 to 1961 he worked at MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, which grew out of the wartime Radiation Laboratory as a multi-disciplinary, interdepartmental center for broad basic research in electronics, physics and communications. He held various positions at the laboratory, including assistant director, associate director and finally director.

From 1959 to 1960 he was also acting head of the Department of Electrical Engineering (now the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), the largest of MIT's academic departments. Dr. Wiesner's work and leadership in technical areas-particularly in fields of microwave theory, human and machine communications, scatter transmission techniques and engineering-have helped make MIT one of the leading electronics research centers in the world.

Broad Advisory Role

Throughout his career, Dr. Wiesner was a frequent consultant and adviser to government agencies, particularly the Department of Defense and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, on matters relating to science and technology. He became a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee in 1957 during the Eisenhower Administration. He also served as the technical director of the Gaither Panel, a study of civilian defense undertaken by the White House. In 1958 he served as staff director of the US delegation to the Geneva Conference for the Prevention of Surprise Attack. Also in 1958, Dr. Wiesner became associated with the Pugwash Group, scientists whose activities have been directed toward improving communications and relations between intellectual leaders in Communist bloc nations and those of the Western world.

Dr. Wiesner took a three-year leave of absence from MIT starting in February 1961 to serve as special assistant to President Kennedy for Science and Technology and, simultaneously, as chairman of the President's Science Advisory Committee. He also held those posts for a short time under President Lyndon B. Johnson following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. He returned to MIT as dean of the School of Science in 1964. He was appointed MIT provost on July 1, 1966, starting a number of years of teamwork with Howard W. Johnson, who became MIT's president that year.

In July 1971, Dr. Wiesner became president of MIT, succeeding Mr. Johnson, who became chairman of the Corporation.

In addition to his responsibilities as president of MIT, Dr. Wiesner helped found the Massachusetts Science and Technology Foundation Board in 1970 and served as a member from 1970 to 1977. As a member of the board, he provided advice and consultation to the governor and other officers of the Commonwealth with respect to scientific and technological matters and also attempted to stimulate the growth of industry in the Commonwealth.

He also was a leader in community affairs in Watertown, where he was a resident for many years and where he was twice elected to the School Committee, serving two terms (1966-1971). He also served one term on the Watertown Planning Board (1958-1960).

From 1974 to 1981, Dr. Wiesner served on the Technology Advisory Council of Congress' Office of Technology Assessment, where he was elected chairman in January 1976. He was also a member of the board of directors of the Public Broadcasting Service and served as a consultant-at-large to the President's Science Advisory Committee.

In addition to his service on the MIT Corporation, Dr. Wiesner was on the board of trustees of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Board of Governors of The Institute of Science, the advisory committee of the Wellman Laboratory for research in photobiology, the Board of Overseers of Harvard College, and the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government. In addition he served on the boards of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, Consultants for Management Decisions, Inc., The Faxon Company, Magnascreen, and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

He was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Philosophical Society, the Acoustical Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association of University Professors, and the honorary societies Tau Beta Pi, Eta Kappa Nu and Sigma Xi. He held numerous honorary doctor's degrees from various institutions including: The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Lowell Technological Institute, University of Michigan, Brandeis University, Lehigh University, Williams College, Oklahoma City University, Yeshiva University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Notre Dame, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Tufts University.

Professional Awards

Over the years, Dr. Wiesner received many professional and public service awards, including: the President's Certificate of Merit, the nation's second highest civilian award for outstanding service to the country, 1948; the Electronic Industries Association Medal of Honor, 1961; the New England Hebrew Academy Man of Year Award, 1963; the Pakistan Government Award of Sitara-i-Pakistan in recognition of services for Pakistan in the area of world peace, 1963; the University of Michigan's Sesquicentennial Award, 1967; the National Conference of Christians and Jews National Human Relations Award, 1968; the American Foundation for the Blind Migel Medal for outstanding service in relation to blindness, 1971; the IEEE Founder's Medal, 1977; the Bronze Beaver, the highest award given by the MIT Alumni Association, 1979; the American Consulting Engineers Council Award of Merit, 1979; the Federation of American Scientists annual Public Service Award for past and future leadership, 1980; the Government of Colombia's The Order of Boyaca, the government's highest distinction "in recognition of the distinguished service to humankind," 1980; the government of Japan's First Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, awarded by the Emperor of Japan in recognition of the extraordinary service he rendered in promoting scientific and technological exchanges between Japan and the United States, 1983; the IEEE Centennial Medal for loyal and dedicated service to the Institute and the profession, 1984; the National Academy of Engineering's Arthur M. Bueche Award for long-term contributions to public understanding of the risks of the nuclear age, 1985; The C & C Foundation Prize, established by The Foundation for C & C Promotion, for contributing to the development, growth and establishment of the field of computer science and media technology, 1986; and the Aging in America and Morningside House Award for contribution to a better world for mankind, 1987.

Books and Articles

Dr. Wiesner was the author of, Where Science and Politics Meet (New York, McGraw Hill, 1961) and was co-author with Harvard Professor Abram Chayes of ABM: An Evaluation of the Decision to Deploy an Antiballistic Missile System (New York, Harper and Row, 1969).

Articles by Dr. Wiesner have appeared in numerous professional journals, including Science, Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, Astronautics, IBM Journal of Research and Development, Daedalus, Scientific American, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and L'Onde Electrique, as well as popular magazines. In recent years he contributed articles and opinion/editorial pieces on the topic of arms control and nuclear disarmament to many newspapers, among them: The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the French Le Monde Diplomatique.

Dr. Wiesner is survived by his widow, Laya W. Wiesner, of Watertown, and their four children: Stephen J. Wiesner, of Mitzpeh Ramon, Israel; Zachary K. Wiesner of Watertown; Dr. Elizabeth A. Wiesner of Branford, CT, and Joshua A. Wiesner of Cambridge.

Remembrances may be sent to The Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, 125 Nashua Street, Boston, 02114, or to Mount Auburn Hospital, 330 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, 02238.


A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 9).

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