Charles Weiner, or Charlie, as he was fondly called, died peacefully, albeit unexpectedly for his legion of friends, of congestive heart failure on January 28, 2012 while he and his wife were at their winter retreat in West Cork, Ireland.
Charlie made path breaking contributions to the oral history of science. He also was a strong advocate and facilitator in promoting citizen participation in policy and ethical decisions involving science. After receiving his Ph.D. from Case Institute of Technology in the History of Science and Technology, he became director of the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics and served from 1965 to 1974. He produced a series of oral and transcribed interviews of physicists who played a key role in advancing nuclear physics and in the creation of the first atomic bomb. Among the many physicists he personally interviewed were Hans Bethe, George Gamow, Sten von Friesen, Wolfgang Panofsky, Philip Morrison, Sir James Chadwick and Stanley Livingston. These interviews are now available on line at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives of the American Institute of Physics.
Charlie joined MIT in 1974 and served as director of the MIT Oral History Program from 1975 to 1986. At MIT Charlie embraced the newly developed analog videocassette technology (VHS) for capturing important events in the history of science. He applied the new technology to videotape Cambridge City Council hearings during the 1976 recombinant DNA controversy, which brought scientists and citizens into an unprecedented dialogue over the new laboratories developed for gene splicing research. Today, the black and white videos are classics in the history of science and have become part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. He also generated scores of interviews of scientists and citizen non-scientists who were involved in the public debates over genetic research. He left a rich legacy of archival materials that have been used by countless scholars throughout the world. I was one of the first researchers to analyze the material and the background documents-spending two years at the MIT archives, until I completed Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy.
Charlie's interest in science was in its human dimensions, both its social and ethical impacts and its affect on the life of individual scientists.
Both Charlie and I were invited to the 25th anniversary of Asilomar (1975) in 2000 (an unprecedented meeting where leading scientists discussed the safety issues of new research before it was begun) at the Asilomar Conference Center in California. Charlie wrote a historical summary of what we should have learned from the early debates in recombinant DNA. It is hard to improve upon his eloquence.
"Despite the success in improving the safety of research, the quasi self-regulation model developed in the recombinant DNA controversy is not adequate for expressing and enforcing societal and moral limits for potential genetic engineering applications such as human cloning or human germ-line interventions. These potential applications are not inevitable, and they raise profound issues beyond laboratory and environmental safety and patients' rights. They occur in a context of increasing genetic determinism, pervasive commercialization, and aggressive efforts to sell genetic intervention as a cure-all for medical and even social problems. Separation of the technical issues from the ethical issues, and the narrowing of ethical concerns to clinical biomedical ethics, limit meaningful public involvement and obscure the larger picture."
Charlie's interest in science was in its social and ethical impact, not simply its pure form. He studied the schism among physicists over nuclear energy, the atomic bomb and the dangers of radiation. He never left that history but watched it evolve. He was an active member of Pugwash, an organization formed by Bertrand Russell after the signing of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The ethical questions about the atomic bomb, nuclear proliferation, and the dangers of atomic radiation provided the backdrop for his work on applied genetics. He wrote about the commercialization of science and the patenting of genes. He followed citizen movements, listened to their voices and brought their voices into the classroom. His writings on history of science were filled with passion, heart, and sensibility for those who struggle to see science and technology serve the common interests of humanity.
While he held an appointment at one of the world's most elite institution of higher learning, Charlie never allowed his moral compass to depart from the values he gained in his youth while an autoworker. He embraced the idea of "citizen science," which became emblematic of his career as he explored the relationships between science and the public.
At a plenary talk at the Tarrytown citizens' biotechnology meeting in July 2011, Charlie recited, in a "Woody-Guthrie" style his original "Tarrytown Talking Blues." I offer one of the 4 verses:
"Suppose you're starting college, tuition's due,
And they want a sample of your DNA too.
They'll study it, and find out what's wrong with you.
So first give them a swab of your DNA,
Cause they know how to make it pay.
They'll swipe it, clone it, patent it, and own it."
Board Chair, Council for Responsible Genetics