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David Dibner, philanthropist, dies at 78

David Dibner
David Dibner

David Dibner, the distinguished philanthropist and civic leader who established the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, died unexpectedly at his home in Wilton, Conn., on Sept. 28. He was 78.

Rosalind Williams, Metcalfe Professor of Writing and director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), recalled Dibner as a "lovely person, at once gentlemanly and warm. Through the Dibner Fund, he was a strong supporter of the history of science and technology, and also of many activities relating that history to contemporary issues. The 300 or so recipients of Dibner Institute fellowships continue these missions, carrying on David's legacy further than any of us can predict or even imagine."

The Dibner Institute, a center for advanced study, and the Burndy Library, one of the world's outstanding collections of rare books, manuscripts, incunabula and objects related to the history of science and technology, have been located on the MIT campus since 1992. The Burndy Library was founded in 1936 by Dibner's father, Bern Dibner.

Evelyn Simha, founding executive director of the Dibner Institute, worked closely with Dibner. He was a "gracious gentleman, deeply devoted to realizing his father's dream of creating at MIT the preeminent, international center for research in the history of science and technology. He gave generously of his time, funds and affection to this cause," she said.

Dibner's service to MIT included endowing the Frances and David Dibner Professorship of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, currently held by David Mindell.

Mindell said the endowed chair is an "honor, and now that title takes on a special meaning honoring David's legacy. David Dibner's vision for interdisciplinary work in engineering and the humanities provided the impetus for the flowering of research in the history of science and technology currently going on at MIT. He was a great supporter of the STS program, particularly its graduate students, and a wonderful, warm presence in the MIT community. We will miss him dearly."

A native of Norwalk, Conn., Dibner was chairman of the Dibner Fund, a family foundation founded in 1957, and former chairman of the Burndy Corp., a leading multinational manufacturer of electrical and electronic connectors and tools, which he joined as an engineer in 1952.

Beginning in 1989, he oversaw the Dibner Fund's national and international grant making in science education, humanitarian aid, the environment, peaceful coexistence, Jewish heritage and culture, and local community organizations.

Dibner and his wife, the former Frances Kessler, lived in Wilton for 53 years. Dibner spearheaded the building of Wilton High School and served on the board of Norwalk Hospital. He was a founding member of the American Business Conference, an active trustee of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn and of Columbia University's School of Engineering and was a member of the Committee for the Humanities at MIT. In addition, he was a fellow of the Aspen Institute and a member of the Council on Foundations.

He served in the U.S. Navy in WWII. He received the B.S. degree in industrial engineering from Columbia University in 1950, the same year he married. He continued with post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics and completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard University in 1968.

An avid gardener and landscaper, Dibner also enjoyed woodworking, sculpting, sailing, hiking and travel. He deeply loved the American west for its history, art, indigenous culture and landscape.

Dibner is survived by his wife and his three sons and daughters-in law, Brent and Relly (Wolfson) Dibner, Daniel and Victoria (Clark) Dibner, and Mark and Rachel (Zax) Dibner, and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in the near future. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Mr. Dibner's memory to the Norwalk Hospital Foundation, the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, or any other charity.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 19, 2005 (download PDF).

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