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New book celebrates Wiesner's legacy

Eleanor Roosevelt with Wiesner and his daughter, Lisa, during the taping of "The Scientists and World Politics" on WGBH-TV in December 1960.
Eleanor Roosevelt with Wiesner and his daughter, Lisa, during the taping of "The Scientists and World Politics" on WGBH-TV in December 1960.
Photo courtesy / MIT Museum

Jerome Wiesner, the 13th president of MIT, a founder of the Media Laboratory and science advisor to President John F. Kennedy, is portrayed in his own words and in essays by friends and colleagues in a new book, "Jerry Wiesner, Scientist, Statesman, Humanist: Memories and Memoirs" (MIT Press).

Sen. Edward Kennedy, writing in the foreword, describes Wiesner as an "invaluable advisor and friend who took the role of 'citizen' seriously. He brought innovation and integrity to all he did."

Wiesner, an expert on microwave theory, radar and military technology, helped establish the Office of Science and Technology under President John F. Kennedy.

This "enabled President Kennedy, and all future presidents, to have unfiltered access to the cutting edge of scientific information. Most important of all, Jerry was part of the committed team who made the partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty a reality," Sen. Kennedy writes.

An outspoken critic of nuclear proliferation, Wiesner was also devoted to activism in the arts, education and civil rights. Essayists contributing to the book include folk historian and musicologist Alan Lomax, Boston arts education leader Elma Lewis, and former Boston mayoral candidate Melvin King.

"Jerry's relationship to the Boston black community was to make opportunity for youngsters to learn at the same pace and under the same conditions as white youngsters in the suburbs. Consequently, he was one of the original thinkers in METCO," Lewis writes.

Wiesner served as president of MIT from 1971-80. A lifetime member of the MIT Corporation, Wiesner also served the Institute as provost, dean of the School of Science, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics. He died in 1994 at age 79.

"Life at MIT for me has been a continuous learning process with some of the best possible teachers, both students and faculty members," Wiesner said in his 1980 MIT Commencement address. "I expect to go on learning so long as my neurons keep firing. I hope you will, too, for the world needs the kind of help that your MIT education has prepared you to give."

The book is truly an MIT production. Its first editor, Walter Rosenblith, served as provost of MIT under Wiesner. Judy Rosenblith, to whom the task of completing the huge volume fell after her husband's death in 2002, notes in her introduction the contributions of former Chancellor Laurence Bacow, now president of Tufts University, and Philip Khoury, dean of the school of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, who oversaw the project.

MIT colleagues and friends who contributed essays to "Scientist, Statesman, Humanist" include Philip Morrison, Nicholas Negroponte, Robert Solow and Catherine Stratton.

Wiesner was "generous, optimistic, wise, with unmatched inside experience," writes Morrison, an Institute Professor emeritus. The two scientists collaborated with Kosta Tsipis, a research affiliate in mechanical engineering, on a 1993 booklet, "Beyond the Looking Glass: The United States Military in 2000 and Later."

Catherine "Kay" Stratton, wife of the late Julius Stratton (president of MIT from 1959-66) emphasized Wiesner's dedication to the arts at MIT in her essay. "He expanded, in both breadth and depth, the role of the arts, humanities and social sciences at MIT. He brought MIT a long way. He established a culture that changed the Institute's vision, as well as people's vision of the Institute," she wrote.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 28, 2004.

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