Home / Editorials / A Remembrance of My Father, Gerhard Werner: 1921 – 2012

A Remembrance of My Father, Gerhard Werner: 1921 – 2012

Professor, John Hopkins Medical School
Lecturing, John Hopkins Medical School 1962

My dad passed away this week at the age of 90. He’d had a magnificent life as an internationally recognized scientist, professor, medical doctor, a devoted husband and father. I’ve always loved and admired him and thought I’d tell you a little about his life and how he shaped mine.

As a scientist, my dad was a pioneer in the field of interdisciplinary neuroscience, blending the disciplines of neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, computer science, artificial intelligence, psychiatry, biomedical engineering, complexity theory and quantum mechanics. That’s a mouthful, huh? Maybe more incredible, I got to witness him doing it for over 50 years, playing under the kitchen table as a baby when he worked on papers at night, at his lab in the medical school when I was a young boy, and on the computer at home, beginning in my teens.

Those who knew my father would describe him as a renaissance man. He read books continuously across a wide spectrum a subjects, as many as three a day, and he could talk to anyone about just about anything. He loved opera and classical music, he loved walking and the mountains, he traveled and lived in many countries around the world, and he loved sitting in the sun and reading. I remember spending many vacations or afternoons, all-together as a family, reading books outdoors in the sun.

Lugano, Switzerland, 1961
Lugano, Switzerland, 1961

As a professor of medicine, my father was a brilliant lecturer, a prolific publisher in professional journals and excellent at fund-raising. After coming to the United States in 1957, he quickly rose through the ranks of the medical community, becoming a Department Chairman at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1965.  He subsequently became Dean of School of Medicine and Vice Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which he was helped shape into one of the leading multi-hospital health networks in the country.

After a multi-year stint as an administrator, he became a Professor of  Psychiatry and Pharmacology, still at the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked on developing medical expert systems (computerized diagnostic systems), and taught and practiced psychoanalytically and cognitively oriented psychotherapy. He was subsequently named a University Professor and Professor Emeritus.

School of Tropical Medicine Faculty, University of Calcutta - 1952
School of Tropical Medicine Faculty, University of Calcutta - 1949

When my dad turned 70, the University made him retire because of his age. But he wasn’t ready to quit: nowhere near it.My father’s work was his fountain of youth and it kept him young well beyond his years.

You see, my father never treated his work as work, but as play, something that I know I internalized in my own professional life. Asking questions, solving problems, synthesizing new ideas and grinding through the painfully slow process of systematic scientific research provided my father with an enormous amount of personal pleasure and satisfaction.

But my father’s relentless drive and work also caused friction in our family. My mother complained about how much time he spent working in the lab at night and on weekends, and I know I felt somewhat abandoned growing up because he wasn’t around more. His work/life balance was an issue my parents never really resolved, but they had a strong marriage and somehow found a way to work around it, staying together for 53 years until his death. I coped by spending as much time as I could with him. We worked around the house together doing man chores and I often accompanied him when he went to work on weekends, where I played Pitt-Penn State Football on his teletype (an early computer terminal) or drew pictures on his drafting desk.

Education was the place where my dad and I really connected. He was always interested in what I was studying and learning and encouraged me to go beyond what I learned in school, way beyond. I quickly learned how to educate myself, but my intellectual independence caused me a certain amount of grief in college and graduate school when I encountered professors who viewed such independence as rebellion.

Education was very important in our family and something my parents viewed as the key to their kids’ success. Their families had both lost everything in World War II and its aftermath and my parents were unified in their desire to live the American Dream and claw their way up to affluence. Education was the key then and my father and mother sacrificed much to put my sister and I through the best schools in Pittsburgh, and then college.

Vienna, 1956
Vienna, 1956

My father believed that education was the key to mobility, and that a well educated man or woman had a better chance to find work, travel, or leave their homeland if they needed to flee due due to religious, ethnic or political discrimination.

Born in 1921, my father was raised an only child in Vienna, Austria. Growing up, my father  loved mathematics and wanted to become a theoretical physicist. World War II started though and his mother enrolled him in medical school at the University of Vienna School of Medicine without his knowledge to prevent him from being drafted into the German Army. He studied there from 1939-1945 and received an M.D.

Living conditions in post-war Europe were terrible, so my dad signed up with the World Health Organization (WHO) for the next 3 years and helped start a School of Tropical Medicine at the University of Calcutta in India. Growing up, he’d often tell me stories about his life in India, the former Maharajah’s palace he got to live in with gold bathroom faucets, and garden parties where snake charmers collected poisonous snakes before the guests arrived. He was much loved by his Indian colleagues and our home is full of mementos from his time there.

Soa Paulo, Brazil 1951
Sao Paulo, Brazil 1951

After India, my dad returned to Vienna and was asked by the Rockefeller Foundation to start another School of Tropical Medicine in Sao Paulo Brazil. Before he left, he hired a language teacher to teach him Portuguese so he could begin lecturing when he arrived in Brazil two months later. His language teacher was my mom. She was living in Vienna then (having grown up in Brazil) and was working for the United Nations as a professional translator. They became great friends and she made him talk about his life, his dreams, and everything he wanted in life in order to make him as fluent as possible before going to Brazil.

My Mom and Dad, 1958
My Mom and Dad, 1958

Everyone knew that my parents were destined to get married but them and my father went on to Sao Paulo, while my mother and her family emigrated to Canada. He wrote frequent letters to her, but she admits that she was not so good about replying. Still he continued writing, returning to Vienna after two years in Brazil and then emigrating to the United States as an associate professor at Cornell Medical College in New York City.

One long holiday weekend, my mother took the bus to New York City from Montreal to see the city. She called my father, who had still continued writing letters  to her, and invited him for lunch at Stouffer’s Restaurant. They had a wonderful reunion and met again for dinner, where he proposed to her. The rest is history and they were married in New York soon after.

My mother’s parents adored my father, who was smart, funny, and a brilliant conversationalist. He was also a very rakish dresser, something I’ve only come to appreciate this week, looking through our family photos. Growing up, I borrowed, often permanently his Brooks Brothers suits, blazers, and even the Tuxedo he’d had made in India.

From Cornell, my father moved to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1960 where he worked with the brain research pioneer Vernon Mountcastle. Together they studied the representation of tactile and joint sensation in the Somatic Area I of the cerebral cortex, introducing novel approaches for characterizing  single neuron activity in relation to psychophysical functions. This work launched my father into the field of  computer science which became a steady theme in his research.  During that time,  he was a member of the experimental group that assembled the LINC computer at MIT, as a new departure for Biomedical Computing.

Friends Bernard Miterauer and Gerhard Werner, 2010
Friends Bernard Miterauer and Gerhard Werner, 2010

Living with my father was difficult at times for all of us, but he was a devoted husband and caring father to myself and my younger sister. I’ve had some good times with my dad and some bad, but we both stuck it out and worked through our issues. Writing letters and email to one another helped us bridge our differences and over time we became very close again.

I think my younger sister had a bit easier time with my Dad than me. He was a little bit more involved in her childhood than mine, probably because he had already climbed the professional ladder and had his seniority. He was still as driven as ever, but by then he had shifted his work back to clinical practice and teaching which required less time away from home and his grueling 36-48 hour experiments at the lab. Like him, my sister became a professor eventually, but with a very different work-life balance from his.

Father Daughter Dinner Dance, 1983
Father Daughter Dinner Dance, 1983

After his forced retirement from Pitt, by dad worked a 5 years for that Associate  Chief of Staff at a Veterans Administration Medical Center in Pittsburgh (the VA didn’t have a mandatory retirement age.) While there, he worked with an aging geriatric patient population and became increasingly interested in ways to help older patients maintain their independence using cellular technology and flat screen devices – way before the age of smart phones. This interest blossomed into a position as a Research Scientist job for Motorola in Austin, Texas, where my parents moved.

Moving to Austin mellowed my dad a bit. My  dad stopped wearing a tie every day, something he’d done, even on weekends at home. He started exercising more regularly during the week, instead of just on weekends. He was home every night – thanks to the Internet and more powerful computers. He and my mother socialized and entertained friends at their home. He still worked everyday, but he was more accessible to those close to him.

Motorola, already in its death throes as a corporation, shuttered the research group where my dad worked after 5 years, but he landed on his feet, securing a adjunct Emeritus Professorship in 2002 at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. He remained active there until his death, publishing one paper after another, teaching courses, and advising students. As usual, his best friends on campus were the librarians who ordered all the new books he wanted and the ladies at the university cafeteria who gave him double portions at lunch.

Learning to eat Sushi in Japan, 1985
The Wonder of a Child, Japan 1985

At UT, he rekindled his love of mathematics and physics and in the last decade of his life, he  broke new ground  in Neurophysics, which applies the principles of quantum physics and complexity theory to explain the emergence of human consciousness in the brain. If you’re interested in reading more about it, I’ll refer you a list of my father’s recent publications on his faculty web page.

My father taught me many things in life. He taught me to speak up for those who cannot be heard and about the obligation we all have to help and serve one another. He taught me to love the outdoors, walking, and the mountains; he taught me the importance of working through differences rather than abandoning the people you love, and that it is possible to control the path your life takes by continuously educating yourself, developing good professional networking skills, and hard work.

My father lived a great, great life. But his spirit and his legacy lives on in me and the man I have become. I saw my dad just two weeks before his death and can still feel his arms embracing me when we said goodbye, his unshaven chin scratching my face. He was proud of me and I of him.

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54 comments

  1. I know what you are going through. My beloved dad died last Friday at the age of 80. I loved my dad so much. My condolences to you and your family.

  2. I have known Gerhard for years as a fellow professor at the University of Texas at Austin. I would sometimes attend his seminars and we co-supervised a dissertation together. Gerhard conscientiously worked nearly right up to the end and was always available for consultation at work, by email or at home. We often worked out together at the Dell Gymnasium in the evenings and on weekends–I saw him only recently on the jogging machine and lifting weights.

    Despite his fantastic record of professional and personal accomplishments, he was quite modest and unassuming and an excellent listener. But once I became engaged in a conversation with him, I immediately realized that he was a brilliant individual and an excellent scholar–one who possessed tremendous integrity and tactful candor. He was a genuine polymath who could render in-depth discussions on about any topic. Along with others, I will miss his cheerful presence and great sense of humor.

  3. Thanks for posting this Phillip. Having read it, I feel I know you, your sister, and Gerhard a little bit better.

  4. Lee and Charlotte Sutton

    Phillip, We are Tim’s parents, and we too wish to tell you how moved we were to read the wonderful tribute you have written about your father. We are sorry not to have met him, and glad to have read accounts of his life and work. Thank you for sharing .

  5. Philip – my deepest condolences to you and Karen and Marion. I met you once briefly in Austin many years ago. I was out of the US for several months including when your father passed away. About five minutes ago my and your dad’s old boss from Motorola emailed me saying that your dad’s wikipedia entry says he passed away. I am still trying to process this. I am trying to contact Marion at the Banton Art Museum or at her home – I don’t know if she’s in Austin. Can you please help me get in touch with her. I’m at 512 507 6019.

    -arun

  6. I read the entire note and was impressed by the incredible contributions your daddy made to the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was a great man, Very humble and a loving father who cared of his family. From your account he left the World a better place with his contributions and sacrifices. He was one in a million. My condolences to you and the entire family may his soul rest in perfect peace.

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