The death of Joe Weiner (President of the Institute, 1963-64, and Huxley Memorial Medallist for 1978) on 13 June 1982 was a great loss for physical anthropology as well as a personal loss to us all. Born in 1915, he had already established what was to be a lifelong interest in the effects of heat on the human body by 1936, when he published the first of a long series of papers on the subject. Indeed, if there was a single thread running through his entire career, it was interest in the body’s ability, primarily through a number of intricate physiological mechanisms, to maintain its own temperature despite wide variations in temperature in the surrounding environment. His doctorate from London University was on heat adaptation, and he was still publishing on the subject the year before he died. There can be no doubt that he pushed the frontiers of understanding of this complex topic forward enormously during his lifetime.

A secondary interest came to light in 1948, with the publication of an article in New Biology on ‘Man’s Ancestry’. This topic, and the whole field of human evolution, was to preoccupy him also, and to culminate in his co-discovery of the Piltdown forgery, announced in a joint paper with Kenneth Oakley and Wilfred le Gros Clark in 1953, and written up at book length by Joe Weiner in 1955. (See the Times Obituary, 16 June.) His interest in human evolution was maintained throughout his life, and his final lecture on the subject, in which he stressed the need for proof and the formulation of testable hypotheses in human palaeontology, was given at the 1982 Symposium of the British Social Biology Council. Alas it had to be read for him, as Joe himself was too ill to attend. The lessons it contained will, however, be germane to the work of all future palaeontologists, for he spoke out against the untestable hypotheses often presented as science in the study of fossil man.

Weiner was primarily an experimentalist. His focus on human physiology was no accident — it is the most eminently testable branch of physical anthropology. Curiously, despite his demonstration of the possibilities, it has not yet flourished within physical anthropology, in the way that, for example, genetics, palaeontology or primatology have done. His pioneering studies will undoubtedly, however, become a mainstream focus of physical anthropology one day, because it is so evident that the study of man demands a strong, physiological component.

From the study of heat tolerance, Joe Weiner branched out in a number of directions. His primary question was always the same: given the vagaries of man’s environment, how does the body adapt? Perhaps the most succinct answers to this question are to be found in his section on Human Ecology, which forms Part V of the standard work in physical anthropology, Human Biology. In this he developed his idea of human adaptability as part of a general idea of ‘man-modified ecosystems’. In such systems, the prevailing climate and the habitat are modified by human culture, and one of the crucial determinants of the modifications that actually occur is the limited flexibility of man’s physiology. He has certain nutritional requirements; hence the study of nutritional ecology can show us how these needs are met in diverse situations. His body temperature cannot vary far; hence climatic ecology. His body’s defences are constantly embattled by bacteria, helminths, vibrios, viruses; hence disease ecology. In all, he gives us a vivid and detailed picture of our species, seen as a worldwide group of organisms involved everywhere in a complex struggle for survival.

Joe was teaching human ecology right up until Christmas 1981,to students of the Human Sciences at Oxford. He had his own room in the Pauling Human Sciences Centre, and had been looking forward to continuing an active role in teaching and research at Oxford after his retirement from his post as Director of the MRC Environmental Physiology Unit in London, which he had held from 1963-1980.

It is a great pity that fate deprived him of his final opportunity to pass on to students directly the broad vision of man he had developed over the years. In place of him we have his extensive writings. But we have lost forever a man of boundless energy, whose cheerful voice, amusing stories and earnest questions were all combined in what was often a rapid-fire display of throwaway wisdom, for he never dwelt ponderously on his knowledge. Nor, fortunately, on the lack of it in others.

Vernon Reynolds

This obituary first appeared as: Reynolds, Vernon. 1982. 'Obituary'. RAIN 52, p. 15-16. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

REYNOLDS, VERNON. 1982. 'Obituary'. RAIN 52, p. 15-16. (available on-line: