Lives of the fellows

Joseph Sidney Weiner

b.29 June 1915 d.13 June 1982
BSc Wits(1934) MSc(1936) PhD Lond(1946) MRCS LRCP(1947) DSc MA Oxon(1971) MRCP(1973) FRCP(1978)

Joe Weiner, environmental physiologist and physical anthropologist, was founder of the Society for the Study of Human Biology and a prime mover in the creation of the Annals of Human Biology. He was born in South Africa, the son of Robert Weiner, a timber and builders’ merchant, and was the second child in a family of seven. He obtained his early schooling at the Boys High School, Pretoria, and later entered the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he read physiology, anatomy and anthropology. He graduated BSc in 1934, and proceeded MSc in physiology in 1936. In 1937 he migrated to Britain and, though he frequently returned to South Africa for short periods, Britain became his home and his country. From 1940 to 1941 he was a demonstrator in the department of applied physiology in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and from 1942 to 1946 scientific member of the MRC unit in Queen Square. He was awarded his PhD London in 1946 and qualified MRCS LRCP from St George’s Hospital, London, in 1947. Around this time WE Le Gros Clark, professor of human anatomy at Oxford, was looking for someone to fill the vacant readership in physical anthropology in his department, and chose Weiner for the job, partly because of his former training with Raymond Dart in Johannesburg but also because Le Gros Clark recognized that physical anthropology needed a totally new orientation, especially in the direction of human physiology. Weiner was to hold this readership for seventeen years, throughout most of which Le Gros Clark continued as professor of human anatomy. In 1963 Joe Weiner moved back to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as director of the MRC environmental physiology unit. He had been honorary deputy director of the MRC Climatic and Working Efficiency Unit since 1955, which had been set up by Le Gros Clark in 1948. When Le Gros Clark was succeeded, at Oxford, by GW Harris, who had his own MRC unit, there was not sufficient space in the Oxford anatomy department to continue to accommodate the Climatic Unit. Weiner had to decide whether to remain with the unit and take it to London, or continue in the readership. Though he always cherished his Oxford connections he chose the first course of action and, in 1965, became professor of environmental physiology in the University of London, a post which he held until his retirement in 1980. He took his MRCP in 1973 and was elected a fellow of the College in 1978. After retirement he lived at Oxford, for the most part, but continued to spend much time working at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as taking on various teaching and examining roles in the department of biological anthropology at Oxford.

From 1962 to 1974 Weiner played a critically important part as convenor of the human adaptability section in the International Biological Programme (IBP), which took him all over the world promoting human biological research. He was also active in the affairs of many learned societies and organizations including the Ergonomics Research Society, the Physiological Society of Great Britain, the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Scientific Committee for Problems of the Environment. He was president of the Royal Anthropological Institute from 1963 to 1964, honorary secretary of the Society for the Study of Human Biology from 1958 to 1963, and chairman from 1968 to 1973. He authored and co-authored over three hundred scientific papers and books, and was awarded a number of honours and distinctions including the Vernon medal, the Rivers memorial medal and the Darwin and Huxley lectureships.

Weiner gave outstanding leadership to the MRC research teams which he directed. Of his many lasting contributions to human physiology and biological anthropology, perhaps the most important of all was his firm guidance towards the integration of physiology, genetics, ecology and evolutionary theory in the analysis of human population biology. To understand fully his achievements one needs to remember the quite dreadful state of physical anthropology prior to the war. With a few exceptions, it was practically a dead subject, preoccupied with trivial issues and lacking direction, ideas and purpose. Worldwide its exponents were almost exclusively concerned with creating racial typologies, and attempting to reconstruct racial affinities, mainly from endless measurements of the body, particularly of the head and skull. They had totally failed to grasp the significance of the neo-Darwinian revolution that was under way in general biology and, particularly in theoretical population genetics. The dynamic changes which occurred in the subject, following the second world war, are more due to the influence of JS Weiner than to any other single individual. At University College, London, with the help of Nigel Bamicot, he gradually and persistently transformed the subject in Britain, and his ideas, directly and indirectly, slowly spread worldwide, particularly through IBP. One of us can recall spending some hours with him, waiting at a London airport on a foggy day, listening to his visions and plans for the rebirth of physical anthropology. This was in the 1950s, and he achieved them all. Sadly, they have not yet been properly recognized. Too often the microscope, rather than the telescope, is used to evaluate scientific contributions.

Weiner’s work covered a broad canvas, but he also made some very specific discoveries. One which particularly pleased him was the exposure of the Piltdown forgery. This ‘fossil’ had been a central issue in discussion of human evolution for almost fifty years. It is indicative of Weiner’s imagination that he was the one who first seriously thought of it as a fraud and took steps to uncover it. It might seem ‘obvious’ with hindsight, but it had baffled a generation of anatomists and palaeontologists. The exposure of the forgery cleared the way to making sense of the palaeontological record of human evolution. Other important contributions included investigating affinities of peoples in Southern Africa, analysing the components of adaptability to environmental temperature variation, and unravelling the physiology of the human sweating mechanism. Weiner was much involved in the establishment of the science of ergonomics. One of his last ventures was to collaborate in producing a ‘cooling bed’ treatment for heat stroke victims, particularly Mecca pilgrims, and his advice was sought by the British Coal and Steel boards. He also assisted the EEC commission in regard to these industries. His authoritative book Principles and Practice of Human Physiology, edited with his close colleague Otto Edholm, embodies much of the substance of his longstanding physiological interests.

In 1943 he married Marjorie Winifred, daughter of Frederick Edward Daw, a station master, and they had two children, Julia and Edmund. Joe was a delightful companion with a rich fund of anecdotes and a great sense of humour; this endearing characteristic complemented the warmth and generosity of his nature. His interests outside his work also covered a broad field: music, English literature, history, theatre and gardening.

GA Harrison
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[, 1982, 285, 982-3; Times, 16 June 1982; Lancet, 1982, 1, 1477]

(Volume VII, page 592)

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