When Professor Jed Z. Buchwald read a message left by his son last week that he had been called at home by a Catharine Stimpson at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, he didn't think much about it.
"I knew who she was-the director of the fellows program at the foundation-but I get many calls from people asking for references and that sort of thing," he explained.
He was working at his desk at the Dibner Institute when she called again. This time she asked him if he was familiar with the foundation's MacArthur Prize Fellows program which awards no-strings-attached cash grants to highly talented individuals working in a wide range of fields.
"I hope you'll be happy to join them," she told Professor Buchwald, who came to MIT three years ago in the dual post of director of the Institute and the first Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology on the history faculty and in MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society.
Thus did Professor Buchwald learn, "out of the blue," that he was one of 24 grant recipients this year.
"I was pretty knocked down," he told The Boston Globe. "Then, of course, I assimilated the full implications of it."
Dr. Buchwald is the 11th person connected with MIT to have won one of the awards, often referred to as "genius grants," since the program was begun in 1981. The MacArthur Fellowships range from $235,000 to $375,000, or $45,000 to $75,000 annually, depending on the age of the recipient. Along with the five-year stipend, the Fellows are offered full health insurance. Recipients are free to use the money as they wish.
Names of potential fellows-this year's group included scholars, writers, artists and scientists-are proposed to the Foundation by more than 100 designated nominators in a variety of professions who serve anonymously for one year.
Professor Buchwald, who will receive $285,000 over five years, said he has "no idea at this point" how he will use the money "but will start thinking about that soon." He said the experience has been "thrilling."
The MacArthur Foundation cited him for examining "the history of science in terms of its great ideas and the figures who generate them."
MIT became home to the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology and the Burndy Library-an advanced research center with one of the world's premier private collections of historical scientific books, manuscripts, instruments and works of art-in the fall of 1992. The primary goal of the institute is to foster and disseminate outstanding scholarship in the history of science and technology and allied fields and to help pursue new directions in these fields.
The work of the Institute and library are funded by the Dibner Fund of Connecticut, a foundation originally established by the late Bern Dibner, an inventor, bibliophile, engineer and businessman who developed a deep interest in the history of science and technology. His son, David Dibner, has been president of the fund since 1989 and was instrumental in founding the institute.
Professor Buchwald, who shares operation of the institute with Dr. Evelyn Simha, founding executive director, received the BA degree from Princeton University and PhD in the history of science from Harvard University. Before coming to MIT, he was at the University of Toronto's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, serving as director in 1991.
Originally intending to be a practicing physicist, Dr. Buchwald had a change of heart while pursuing an undergraduate degree in that field at Princeton. In his fourth year, he was influenced by Dr. Thomas S. Kuhn, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and History of Science Emeritus at MIT, who was then teaching history of science courses at Princeton.
"I found it particularly fascinating to take apart and put together antique, long-gone science," Dr. Buchwald told Theresa Pease in an MIT Spectrum interview. "I was especially interested in looking at scientists within the contexts of their times to understand the theoretical, experimental, social and cultural forces that underlay their work." At Harvard, he wrote a dissertation on the development in the 19th century of the electromagnetic field concept.
"I continue to believe strongly that it's extremely important to understand where we came from and how we got to where we are," he told the Globe. "Without that we have no idea where we're going. People don't exist in an historical vacuum."
His research interests now concentrate on the history of physics since the 17th century. He has published numerous articles as well as three books-From Maxwell to Microphysics, The Rise of the Wave Theory and The Creation of Scientific Effects, all with the University of Chicago Press.
This has been a particularly busy time at the Dibner Institute, he said, with the launching of a new journal, Archimedes, which will come out once a year as a book, and a series entitled the Dibner Institute Studies on the History of Science and Technology, which draws on material from conferences held at the institute.
In addition to his work at the institute, Professor Buchwald next year will be chair of the Committee on Discipline.
Professor Buchwald, 46, is married to Dr. Betsey Barker Price, a senior lecturer in the history of medieval science and economics in the School of Humanities and Social Science. They live in Cambridge with their children, Zachary, 12, and Rachael, 8.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 21, 1995.