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Jerome Wiesner, 13th President, Is Dead at 79


Tech File Photo
Former President Jerome B. Wiesner

By Jeremy Hylton
Chairman

Jerome B. Wiesner, 13th president of MIT and science adviser to President John F. Kennedy, died late Friday night at his home in Watertown. He was 79.

Wiesner had been ill for several months with an unspecified illness and died of heart failure, according to the MIT News Office.

A private memorial service was held Sunday, and an MIT service will be held at a later date.

Wiesner was inaugurated as president on July 1, 1971 and held the post until June 30, 1980, when he retired and became a life member of the Corporation. During his career, he also served as provost, dean of the School of Science, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering, and director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

Wiesner was a leader in the development of public policy regarding science and technology over the last 30 years. He worked with Kennedy during his election campaign in 1960, and was named special assistant to the president for science and technology in February 1961.

At MIT, Wiesner was a strong proponent of interdisciplinary research programs and of the arts. He played an instrumental role in expanding research and teaching programs in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

He was one of the founders of the Media Laboratory, housed in the building that bears his name.

"From his days as group leader and division head in the Radiation Laboratory more than 50 years ago through his presidency in the '70s, to the last years in which he has been the intellectual champion of the Media Laboratory, Jerry Wiesner has been single-minded in his desire and his efforts to strengthen and improve his beloved MIT," said Chairman of the Corporation Paul E. Gray '54. Gray served as chancellor during Wiesner's presidency and then succeeded him at the office.

"This special place has benefited beyond acknowledgment from his fierce belief in the value of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in this community, from his insistence on intellectual quality in our programs, and from his vision of the ways in which science and technology and the arts and humanities reinforce each other," Gray continued.

Influential science adviser

Wiesner was equally influential in the world outside MIT. As Kennedy's chief adviser and planner for science issues, he worked on the treaty banning all but underground nuclear tests that was signed by the United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom in 1963.

He remained an outspoken critic of nuclear arms proliferation throughout his later life and was a founding member of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, a group of Soviet and American scientists who raised money for research on global problems.

During Wiesner's tenure in the Kennedy administration, Science editor Philip H. Abelson said in a speech that Wiesner "has accumulated and exercised more power visible and invisible than any scientist in the peace-time history of this country."

Wiesner was the third person to serve as presidential science adviser. MIT President James R. Killian Jr. '26 was the first. Wiesner returned to the Institute in 1964 shortly after Kennedy's assassination.

Upon his return to the Institute, Wiesner served as dean of the School of Science. In 1966 he was appointed provost, serving under then-President Howard W. Johnson.

After his retirement as president, he continued his work on policy issues in science, technology, and society, with a particular emphasis on the arms race. In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, Wiesner said, "we desperately need to break this cycle of escalation before it becomes totally unmanageable."

In 1993, he co-authored a booklet calling for deep cuts in military spending. The booklet, "Beyond the Looking Glass: The United States Military in 2000 and Later," was written with Institute Professor Emeritus Philip Morrison and research scientist Kosta Tsipis.

Work at Radiation Lab

Earlier in his career at MIT, Wiesner was a leader in the radar effort at the Radiation Laboratory and worked with the late Institute Professor Norbert Wiener to spur research in living and human-made information systems.

Wiesner was an expert on microwave theory, communications science and engineering, signal processing, radio and radar, as well as military technology, disarmament, and science policy and education.

In 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II, Wiesner joined the staff of the Radiation Lab. He worked on developing microwave radar, and later headed Project Cadillac, an airborne radar system project that was a forerunner of the current airborne warning and control system (AWACS).

After the war ended, Wiesner worked briefly at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he helped to develop the electronic components used in the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946.

He returned to the Institute that year as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. From 1946 to 1962, Wiesner held various positions at the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the successor to the Radiation Lab.

Wiesner was named full professor in 1950 and became director of RLE in 1952. He served as director of RLE until 1962, when he was named an Institute Professor.

From 1959 to 1960, Wiesner served as acting head of the Department of Electrical Engineering.

Born in Michigan

Wiesner, born on May 30, 1915, grew up the son of a shopkeeper in Dearborn, Mich. He attended Dearborn public schools and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he received bachelors degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics in 1937.

He received a master of science degree from Michigan in 1938, and a PhD in electrical engineering in 1940.

As a student at Michigan, Wiesner was associate director of the university radio broadcasting service. Later, he served as chief engineer for the Acoustical and Record Laboratory of the Library of Congress.

While at the Library of Congress, he helped develop recording facilities and equipment, and traveled through the southern United States with Alan Lomax, a folklorist who made recordings of African American musicians.

Wiesner is survived by his wife, Laya, and their four children, Stephen, of Mitzpeh Ramon, Israel, Zachary of Watertown, Joshua of Cambridge, and Elizabeth Wiesner of Branford, Conn.