Remembering Charlie Weiner - Sheldon Krimsky

Remembering Charlie Weiner - Sheldon Krimsky
Biopolitical Cultural Festival

Tarrytown Tribute to Charlie Weiner,  July 24, 2012

Sheldon Krimsky

In April 1974, when Charlie Weiner joined the MIT faculty there was already something brewing in the molecular biology community.  A letter appeared in Science in 1973 from biologists Maxine Singer and Dieter Soll expressing concerns about the potential hazards of the new gene splicing techniques and the unknown consequences of moving genetic material across species—such as tumor virus DNA into bacteria. After a successful 9 years at the American Institute of Physics. where Charlie  interviewed some of the leading American nuclear physicists, he was ready to turn his oral history skills to work on the next major scientific revolution—genetic technology.  He had a sixth sense for anticipating emerging issues in science and technology and he was right on the mark when he applied for funding to document the recombinant DNA controversy.

The Oral History Project at MIT ran from 1975-1979 during the peak of the recombinant DNA controversy.  Charlie collected over 100 interviews—taped and transcribed.  The current collection at the MIT archives are in 52 manuscript boxes with 344 audio tapes and 30 video tapes and extensive background documents.

Among the 100 interviews were people like Bob Pollack, who worked in Jim Watson’s lab and was the first scientist to press the amber alert on certain gene splicing experiments.  He subsequently became Dean at Columbia College.  Of course Charlie also collected oral interviews  with the leading molecular biologists as well as activists and lay people who became intertwined with the issues.

In 1976, one year after the Oral History Program at MIT was launched by Charlie, something quite unexpected happened in his backyard.   The Mayor and City Council of Cambridge demanded that Harvard and MIT hold back certain recombinant DNA experiments until a citizens committee could meet and issue a report on the risks.   Harvard was around long before the City of Cambridge was chartered; moreover the city was no match for Harvard’s financial and legal resources if the university were to challenge the city’s moratorium request.  Charlie folded the documentation of that episode in Cambridge into the larger Oral History Program.  I remember well the city council hearing at Cambridge City Hall on my birthday June 26, 1976 when Maxine Singer appeared before the Council as the representative of the National Institute of Health with the newly promulgated NIH guidelines for recombinant DNA research. And Charlie was there with a new black and white video camera to document the event.

Those who attended or who subsequently saw the videotape can hardly forget the opening remarks by Mayor Alfred Vellucci.  He said “for the person who speaks, kindly give your name, address, your title, and the organization you represent.  Refrain from using the alphabet. Most of us in this room are lay people; we don’t understand your alphabet.”
The video tape of the event—the Cambridge recombinant DNA hearings has become a classic among those who study science and the public.  Charlie was justifiably proud that this 30 minute black and white video was obtained by the Smithsonian Institution and is also available on the MIT Video Archive.
We both attended the 25th Anniversary of Asilomar in 2000. Charlie wrote a historical summary of what we should have learned from the early debates on recombinant DNA.

“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 never let his PhD, the prestige of his institutional affiliation, or the stature of those he called his friends let him forget the under-represented or silenced groups in society.  They were represented in his archival materials.  His tradition of oral history included all the voices of an issue.  They were also represented in his classroom. He understood the power of popular culture in art, music and science. He resonated to the voices of the citizen committee in Cambridge when they wrote in their final 1977 report.  ”the controversy  over recombinant DNA research involves profound philosophical issues..the social and ethical implications of genetic research must receive the broadest possible dialogue in our society.

Charlie was a great lover of music—where he found a language that raised our hopes and spoke justice to power.  One of these songs we recalled after the corrupted banking practices led to the financial collapse of 2008 was a song sung by Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie—Charlie hung out with Seeger for a while as a young troubadour in the West Village and he met Woody Guthrie. Sometime in the late 1940s Woody Guthrie gave Charlie a mimeographed 25-cent songbook, decorated with Woody’s cartoons, which contained songs including “This Land is Your Land,”  and “Grand Coolie Dam.”  In a tribute to Charlie and his acqiamtance, the legendary Woody Guthrie (on the centennial year of his birth) we present a few verses of “The Banks of Marble.” (written by Les Rice 1948-49), with a message of uncanny relevance today.

  I've traveled round this country
  From shore to shining shore.
  It really made me wonder
  The things I heard and saw.

   I saw the weary farmer,
   Plowing sod and loam;
   I heard the auction hammer
   A knocking down his home.

  But the banks are made of marble
  With a guard at every door
  And the vaults are stuffed with silver
  That the farmer struggled for.