Charles Irwin Weiner, 1931-2012

Charlie+susan2011My father-in-law Charlie Weiner died on Saturday. He was 80, and having an extended stay in the village of Eyeries, Ireland with his wife, JoAnn Hughes.

Charlie was a remarkable guy, and I'm deeply sad that I won't get to spend more time with him. We only met in 2007, a few months after I met his daughter, Susan Weiner. I liked him immediately – he was funny, and engaging, and a great person to have a conversation with, because he loved to hear and share stories.

Here are some stories I heard him tell about himself and believe I remembered correctly:

He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In 1946, he hit the road to explore the South with a friend. Among his better documented stories is his encounter with Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, an old-time musician he searched out who lived in a ramshackle cabin near Asheville, North Carolina. This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music, and Charlie's music experiences ranged from New York jazz clubs to Gullah singers in the Georgia Sea Islands. He had a great ear and memory for melody – at 80, he could still sing Japanese songs he'd learned in Tokyo during his brief military career in the '50s.

In the late '40s he rode the rails and played songs with Woody Guthrie, who gave him one of his hand-drawn, mimeographed songbooks. He attended get-togethers at Pete Seeger's Greenwich Village home, and was present the night Lee Hays brought over his friend Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers were born. Charlie acted as impromptu security for Paul Robeson and other musicians as the 1949 civil rights and music festival in Peekskill, New York deteriorated into a racist and anti-Semitic riot. 

His mother was a socialist who ran for office in New York, and Charlie remained a staunch supporter of those ideals his entire life. He distrusted and questioned authority, and always fought for basic human rights. In the '50s, he spent time in auto plants in Ohio, working on the line but secretly organizing for the union. He took part in civil rights marches in New York and Washington DC, and Susan got to see Martin Luther King when she was a young girl. He worked on campaigns for Henry Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern. 

He met his first wife, Shirley Marks, in Cleveland, and they brought forth Susan Weiner, my wife. Their marriage didn't last, but he and Shirley remained cordial friends until the end.

Charlie entered college at Case Institute of Technology, eventually earning a PhD in the History of Science and Technology in 1965, the subject that became the focus of the rest of his life. From 1965 to 1974 he was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in New York, where he applied his earlier interests in talking to people and recording the results. In 1970, he used a Guggenheim Fellowship to move his family to Copenhagen so he could document the life of Niels Bohr, and many of his oral histories, films, and papers can be found online in AIP's Niels Bohr Library.

In 1975, he joined MIT as professor of History of Science and Technology, and was founding director of the MIT Oral History Program until 1986. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, in 2002, he was named the Arthur Miller Lecturer on Science and Ethics at MIT.

Charlie_0003His work collecting interviews, letters, and other papers resulted in four books: Exploring the History of Nuclear Physics, History of Twentieth Century Physics, The Legacy of George Ellery Hale (with Helen Wright and Joan Warnow), and Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (with Alice Kimball Smith). This doesn't include the many interviews with prominent scientists Charlie made available to others. Notably, his interviews with Richard Feynman – the first time the famous physicist had agreed to discuss his work – were quoted and credited in James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

Sadly, his magnum opus, on which he worked for over twenty years, will remain incomplete. It was to be a book on (quoting his MIT page) “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 to human genetic manipulation.” 

Charlie never left behind his great love of music. Though he lived in Cape Cod with JoAnn, his wife and partner of many years, he kept a Greenwich Village apartment so he could see live jazz in the many clubs where he was well known to everyone from the owners and staff to musicians. Among his close friends, he counted guitarist Jim Hall (who gave him guitar lessons), trombonist Roswell Rudd, and pianist Bruce Barth, but the many, many people Charlie loved and who loved him back may be numberless. 


In February 2010, Susan and I came to Cape Cod, because Charlie had landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure (which continued to plague him for the next two years). It was not entirely a sad trip for us, as he was able to come home and he and JoAnn toasted our Valentine's Day engagement, which had occurred in the restaurant across from their home. By July, Charlie was healthy enough to come to California for Susan's birthday and he and JoAnn came to our wedding in October.

In December of 2010, Charlie and JoAnn had a long stay in Eyeries, a small village on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland, so JoAnn could work on her art and Charlie could work on his book. Originally planned for three months, they had such a good time they extended their visit by another month. The people there welcomed them completely, and they made many friends. On their return home, Charlie played us recordings he made of community music sessions held in a nearby pub – a long and terribly sad song sung a cappella by an angelic-voiced young teen was a standout.

They returned to Ireland a year later. Despite misgivings about his health, Charlie was the biggest champion of the trip and refused to stay home. He looked forward to seeing his new friends and diving back into the book, where he'd done his most productive work in some time. After arriving in Eyeries, however, he never fully recovered his strength, and declined rapidly.

He is missed tremendously by all who knew him, and the idea that the world goes on without him – and his continuous, shameless puns – is hard to imagine. Sláinte and l'chaim, Charlie, we'll sing a song for you in loving memory.

Charlie_0002UPDATE 1: Susan and I were just talking, and I remembered one of Charlie's most endearing, entertaining, and frustrating traits: his love of good food. I once came to Boston for business without Susan, before we were married. I said I would have a car and I wanted to drive down to the Cape to have lunch before my flight home. The first thing he asked was, "What do you want to eat?" Well, I don't know, we can figure it out when I get there. "No, I need to know. We'll figure out what you want, and then work backwards from there." (For the record, we ate at Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, a great, low-key place to get a lobster roll and sit next to the water that we returned to often.)

Eating out with Charlie meant enduring a ritual of joking banter with the waiter or waitress, who had to endure a pop quiz of their menu. "So, tell me, the sole — is that sauteed in oil or just how is it prepared?" As much as he enjoyed finding new restaurants he loved sharing his favorites with his friends. 

UPDATE 2: Thanks to all the visitors who are leaving personal remembrances of Charlie. They mean a lot to his family, and help reveal a side of Charlie we didn't know directly. It is quite moving to hear the impact he had on others. Please encourage others!

MIT has published its official obituary

UPDATE 3: Will Thomas says kind things about this post and writes about oral history and the extent and importance of Charlie's work on the history of science blog Ether Wave Propaganda.

10 thoughts on “Charles Irwin Weiner, 1931-2012

  1. Phyllis Klein says:

    Scott, thank you for your moving tribute. Your words perfectly describe the Charlie Weiner I knew.
    Charlie was the first MIT professor I worked for, as a office temp, in the winter of 1981. My job that first day was to type corrections in a paper he was to present to the AAAS later that week, and then to mail it at the post office. I followed his instructions, and returned to his office with one hour left to my workday. Not wanting to lose an hour’s pay, I decided to trim a philodendron whose vines were trailing around the perimeter of his office, up and over windows, shelves and the doorframe. I picked off the dead leaves and saved whatever trimmings I could, putting them into a large glass of water.
    The following morning I found a note from Charlie: “Thank you for your work, and thank you for cloning my philodendron.”
    Imagine, I thought, a famous MIT professor, rushing off to give a paper at the AAAS, is taking time to notice that I cleaned up his plant. The STS Program might be a good place to work for a few more days. I stayed at STS for 20 years, mostly because of people like Charlie.
    Charlie cared deeply about his classes and his students. Word spread. His undergraduate course, orginally called “Ethical Issues in Science and Engineering,” was for many years the most popular course STS offered. Students knew they were in the presence of a real, unaffected person who was passionate about his subject. It was heartening to read the tributes by his former students.
    I am saddened by Charlie’s death. I send loving thoughts to his family and friends.

  2. Marcy Darnovsky says:

    Dear Scott, Susan and JoAnn,
    My thoughts are with you – and very much on Charlie.
    As Susan and JoAnn know, those of us here at the Center for Genetics and Society are big Charlie fans. He made key contributions to the meetings held over the past couple years that brought together scholars and activists working on human biotechnologies from a social justice perspective.
    We’ve just sent the note that’d pasted below to our colleagues who attended those Tarrytown Meetings.
    If you’d like me to send you the transcripts and other materials mentioned, I’d be more than happy to.
    Scott, thank you for this wonderful remembrance.
    Warmest wishes,
    Marcy Darnovsky

    Dear Tarrytown friends,
    We’re writing with the very sad news that Charlie died last Saturday. He had been on an extended stay in the village of Eyeries, Ireland, with his wife JoAnn Hughes. The cause of his death was congestive heart failure.
    We’ll all feel Charlie’s absence acutely in Tarrytown this summer. He was a strong presence at both Tarrytown Meetings. In 2011, he introduced the Biopolitical Cultural Festival (here’s the video). In 2010, he gave a closing plenary reflection (video; transcript).
    Then – as those of you who were there will not have forgotten – Charlie, Francine Coeytaux and Pat Williams got up on stage as “The Reflectors” and performed the Talking Tarrytown Blues, which Charlie had written just a few hours previously.
    As many of you know, Charlie devoted his scholarly career, most recently as Professor of History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the politics and history of nuclear and genetic science. MIT’s obituary of Charlie calls him “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.”
    Charlie left unfinished a book described on his MIT web page as using “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 to human genetic manipulation.”
    A wonderful remembrance of Charlie as a person; an activist; a jazz, folk and food afficianado; and a punster, written by his son-in-law Scott Underwood, is here. Scott invites personal remembrances of Charlie in the comments of his blog, and says, “They mean a lot to his family, and help reveal a side of Charlie we didn’t know directly. It is quite moving to hear the impact he had on others.”
    Here at CGS, we’ll miss Charlie enormously: his visits when he was in Berkeley, our phone calls talking over various aspects of our shared concerns and work, and the warmth and wisdom he radiated whenever and wherever we met.
    Information about a memorial service on Saturday February 4 in Cotuit, MA is here.
    We will be in touch about plans for a remembrance of Charlie at Tarrytown this summer.
    Richard Hayes and Marcy Darnovsky
    Center for Genetics and Society
    To access the 2010 transcript and “Talking Tarrrytown Blues,” you’ll need to log into the Tarrytown Meetings website. If you encounter any problems please contact Charles Garzon.

  3. says:

    Scott, what a wonderful obituary and summary of Charlie’s essence. I met Charlie almost 17 years ago in Boston through Amelia and Joanne. I loved his love of life, food and music. It was hard not to eat constantly when you were around Charlie and his friends. The kitchen was always full of so many wonderful foods. He would make special trips to various stores to buy each item.
    I always felt his warmth and love and will miss him dearly.

  4. Michael Sokal says:

    I was (apparently) his first research assistant at the AIP Center, in January 1966, while it was still in NYC. (Oh, boy! That’s 46 years ago!) His advice set me on the course I’ve more-or-less followed ever since. Like many others, I owe him much.
    A story: I remember him describing one of his freshman teachers at Case looking out at a class and noting all the bright shining faces and one bright shining head: Charlie’s.

  5. Thanks all for writing your remembrances of Charlie. They mean a lot to his family — encourage others!

  6. Wade Roush says:

    Scott, thanks so much for posting this remembrance. I was a PhD student in the STS program from 1989 to 1994 and Charlie gently and expertly shepherded me through my general exams and my dissertation. He was tolerant of my rebelliousness (my papers were always more journalistic than scholarly) but always tried to nudge me back toward rigor. My most vivid memories of Charlie are of the long, winding conversations we had in his office at MIT, which was so packed with books and papers that I was sure one of us would eventually be caught in an avalanche. It’s sad that his big project on “The Mushroom Cloud and the Double Helix” will go uncompleted, but I think Charlie imbued a couple of generations of his students with the same concern for questions around the social responsibilities of scientists and engineers. He will be missed.

  7. George O'Har says:

    A lovely tribute to a hell of a man. Charlie was one of the first folks I talked to when I visited MIT, back when I was applying to STS (I was a member of the first class of 4). He was such an intersting and vital and funny man. I can still hear his voice. That wonderful tone! I am really stunned and saddened by this news. My thoughts go out to his family. He will be missed.
    George O’Har

  8. Karen Rader says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. Certainly the history of science community will miss him. I sat in on a seminar he led on public history when I was a postdoc at MIT in 1993-94, and so did Marcia Bartusiak (who was there on a Knight fellowship). Our discussions about ethics, oral history, and methods of writing contemporary history of science were some of the best I can remember.

  9. says:

    Hi, thanks for this lovely memoir. I knew Charlie at MIT and we shared a love of jazz. He will be greatly missed.
    Best wishes,
    Mark Harvey

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