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Historian of science Charles Weiner dies at 80

Longtime faculty member was a pre-eminent analyst of the political, social and ethical dimensions of contemporary science.
Charles Weiner
Charles Weiner

Charles Weiner, professor emeritus of the history of science and technology at MIT, died Saturday, Jan. 28, in West Cork, Ireland. He was 80 and resided in New York and Yarmouth Port, Mass.

Weiner died during an extended stay on Ireland’s Beara Peninsula with his wife, JoAnn Hughes, after struggling with congestive heart failure.

Weiner was the pre-eminent historian of his generation focusing on the political, social and ethical dimensions of contemporary science and the responses of scientists to public controversies arising from their work. Educated at the Case Institute of Technology first in metallurgy (BS 1960) and then in the history of science and technology (PhD 1965), he had a strong generational attachment to the cultural currents of the American working class. He worked for a time as an autoworker, traveled the country, and sought out and knew singers such as Woody Guthrie. He served briefly in the U.S. Army both in Korea and Japan.

Upon receiving his PhD, Weiner became director of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics from 1965 to 1974, and then moved to MIT, serving from 1975 to 1986 as director of the MIT Oral History Program.

In response to widespread fears that the then-new technology of recombinant DNA could escape into the world with dire consequences — MIT’s oral history archives include footage of raucous Cambridge City Council hearings in the mid-1970s on the Institute’s request to use recombinant DNA in research — Weiner interviewed a wide array of American molecular biologists and physicists on the issue. For many years he taught the Science, Technology and Society (STS) Program’s largest undergraduate course, “Politics and Ethics in American Science.”

When an STS graduate program was established, Weiner taught a key graduate seminar, often with historian of science Lily Kay, on the history of molecular biology with a strong emphasis on ethical questions over patenting, eugenics, privacy, insurance and health policy. A central topic in the course was the self-regulation of molecular biology that had been initiated by the Asilomar Conference in 1975 as part of the debate over recombinant DNA. With Kay, Weiner organized a series of Mellon Foundation-supported workshops at MIT, bringing together leading historians of biology along with Nobel Laureates such as Sydney Brenner.

Together with MIT anthropologist Michael Fischer, he taught a course on Superfund toxic cleanup sites in Massachusetts, where he brought together on neutral academic ground environmental regulators, community activists and corporate geologists. Students in the course offered their MIT training in environmental science to communities and wrote about the experience.

After his retirement from MIT, Weiner remained active around the country supporting community-based research on the effects of uranium mining in the American Southwest. He was recruited by the University of California at Berkley to initiate a new course on such issues as debates about the migration of genetically engineered corn into surrounding crops in Mexico and the controversy over the denial of tenure to a young professor who had published research on the subject.

Weiner was a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and delivered the 2002 Arthur Miller Lecture on Science and Ethics at MIT. He edited four volumes on the history of science: “Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections” (with Alice Kimball Smith), “Exploring the History of Nuclear Physics,” “History of Twentieth Century Physics,” and “The Legacy of George Ellery Hale.”

Weiner left unfinished at his death a work on the history of social responsibility in science, from the atomic bomb to contemporary genetic engineering. It uses archival and oral history materials to document scientists’ complicity in and resistance to nuclear and biological weapons, their connections with citizens’ groups affected by environmental toxins and by fallout from nuclear testing, and anticipatory concerns about ethical limits in human genetic manipulation.

An aficionado of jazz and good food and a wonderful conversationalist, “Charlie” — as he was known to all — will be sorely missed as the kind of committed historian of science that America needs.

Weiner is survived by his wife, artist JoAnn Hughes of Yarmouth Port, Mass., and his daughter Susan Andrea Weiner and her husband, Scott Underwood, of El Cerrito, Calif., from his previous marriage to Shirley Marks, of Walnut Creek, Calif.

He is also survived by two brothers, Peter Weiner of New York and Jack Weiner of Oriental, N.C., and by nieces and nephews Rebecca Weiner Tompkins of Brooklyn, N.Y., Amy W. Miller of Miami, Andrew Weiner of Albany, Calif., Lexie Holton of Texas, and Josh Weiner of New York.

Weiner is also survived by three stepchildren — Jennifer Reif of Brewster, Mass., Ron Reif of Falmouth, Mass., and Amelia Hirsch of San Francisco — and by six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Cotuit Center for the Arts, 4404 Route 28 (Falmouth Rd.), Cotuit, Mass., on Saturday, Feb. 4, from 2-4 p.m.

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