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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.

58 comments

  1. My condolences to you Philip. I went through a similar loss 9 or 10 years ago. It does get easier, slowly, with time. Peace.

    • My thoughts are with you Philip – what a great remembrance – clearly an inspiring life well lived that impacted thousands – the most important being a sense of wonder for all things around you which clearly you have inherited in heaps.

  2. Chris L. Robinson

    Okay, this was a beautiful tribute. Your father lived a life. He’s left a legacy. It reminds me of something my grandmother said to me in her 80’s, “I’ve danced up this life. It owes me nothing.”

  3. What a beautiful tribute! My father is also a scientist and thankfully, is in great health at 89. My father instilled a love of the outdoors in his five children and a passion for geology in me, his oldest son.

    One of my best friends is a planetary geologist who had Gene Shoemaker as a college instructor and works at the Caroline Shoemaker building at USGS in Flagstaff. My father worked with Gene on impact sites over fifty years ago and helped decide the curriculum for teaching geology to the Apollo astronauts. My friend invites me to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference each year. I tell him I’m in “Nerdvana” when I’m there and that after fifty something years and several grandchildren, I finally decided what I want to be when I grow up.

  4. My condolences to you Philip and your family. What a remarkable life of achievement your father lived. Cherish the memories and time you had with him. Your father left an enduring legacy with his work and benefited many from it. A life well lived.

  5. What a fantastic life, and what a tribute. My condolences to you and you family for your loss. My dad is a retired engineer, and at 79 he now leads hikes and builds bridges with trail crews. He has walked all 700 miles of the CT trail system. I guess it pays to stay active in whatever you pursue.

  6. What a lovely tribute to an exceptional man.

  7. My condolances

  8. What a beautifully written memoir of your Dad and what wonderful pictures.

    I have only known your parents for the years in Austin but now I feel I’ve

    known them for 53 years.

    Thank you for this very touching story.

    Paula

  9. Thank you for sharing this.

    We have seen glimpses and hints of your Dad in your posts over the years, so some of this wasn’t a surprise, especially the love he had for you and you for him.

    My condolences to you and your family.

  10. A beautiful tribute! But I like “The Beach Ball” even better!

    You are in my prayers for comfort in this time of loss!

  11. Jolly Green Giant

    Very, very nice. A life well lived and clearly appreciated. He set a high bar and you’re lucky to have had him so long. Sorry for your loss, but you sure seemed to have gained a lot. We should all be so lucky.

  12. What a wonderful man your father was. He had a life filled with many incredible accomplishments and influenced a huge amount of people. It was very interesting to read about him. I’m glad he made it all the way to the age of 90, but for such influential people that is still too soon to leave this world, although his legacy lives on.

    My condolences to you and your family, we will keep you in our prayers.

  13. Thanks you all for your kind words and condolences. We’re doing as well as can be expected under such circumstances, but I am thankful for all of the love and help we’ve received from his community here. He and my mother were blessed to live in Austin among so many friends.

    Philip

  14. What a great tribute to your father. From the sounds of it, he lived a truly extraordinary life. Thank you for sharing some of what he is- I very much enjoyed reading this.

  15. A beautiful, heartfelt write-up, Philip. My condolences.

  16. Gerhard was a wonderful library user. His impish delight in getting a book from the collections or one that we’d ordered specifically for him will always be remembered. What I liked best about Gerhard is that he always recognized library staff on campus–even if we were “out of our uniform location.” Just from what he borrowed we knew he had wide ranging interests and epitomized a lifelong learner who values libraries and books.

    His smile, jaunty wave and enjoyment of libraries and books will forever remain with me. I saw him on campus two weeks ago getting a book on hold and he smiled and waved.

    He was one of a kind; he was one of the best.

    From staff at the University of Texas at Austin–Engineering Library

    I will miss him.

    • Susan – great to hear from you and the other university librarians who have contacted me privately. My father adored the university libraries and was always shuttling back and forth between them whenever I visited Austin. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started to haunt the UT libraries in order to read the books he’d missed the first time around!

  17. What a wonderful read. Thank you for sharing his life with those of us who were not directly touched by him. I pray that you and your family feel sorrow for its time, have strength when it is time, and have joy in its time.

  18. A lovely, warm tribute to a wonderful man. Well written, Sir.
    You’ll never really get over the loss but it does become easier with time.

  19. My thoughts and sympathies are with you and your family at this difficult time. I’m reminded of our Pittsburgh years as next door neighbors on Malvern. We had delightful conversations with your parents, watched Karen and my son Andy play basketball in our backyard, and knew you as a busy high school/Carnegie Mellon student. I start to think of so many memories of that time. Your father lives on in your heart in a powerful way and also in mine.

    • Lori – how wonderful to hear from you again. Living at the house on Malvern was a favorite time of my childhood and young adult life. I can almost feel the bushes brush against my legs in the gap between the hedges connecting our homes. My best.

  20. Early,
    Thank you for sharing your father with us. I am sure that even though most of us never met him we have certainly benefited from his great life and work. A man of such devotion never leaves the world unmarked in a positive way. Our prayers are with you and your family.

  21. Peace to you and your family. What a lovely, lovely narrative, thank you for sharing such a personal story.

  22. Philip,
    Your talent at written expression is great. Something I’m sure you built upon by reading as your father did. A great tribute.
    “The Beach Ball” left me stunned as I almost lost my father last year and had thoughts, though slightly different in circumstances but similar in context, running through my head when things were uncertain at best. It kind of stripped away the “grownup” and brought me back to the “helpless child”. “The Beach Ball” brought me there again. My condolences to you and your family.

    Bruce

  23. The Beach Ball story was such a poignant account and eloquently reflected the helpless feelings we can have as children and adults when faced with loss. Thank you for sharing that and your father with the rest of us.

  24. Philip,
    Thanks for the comment. My father is 84 so time is limited and although when the time does come, though it’s not the same as having some one physically with us they will ALWAYS BE WITH and LIVE through us.
    Take care

  25. Philip, it’s obvious you thought the world of your dad. That’s a loving tribute. Wishing you, and the rest of your family, all the best.

  26. Thanks for sharing the story of your father with us! What a brilliant man. Obviously the apple didn’t fall to far from the tree.You are also an amazing person,who inspires, educates, and is passionate about what you do. I’m grateful for what you do , and I’m sure your father is very proud of what you have accomplished. Thanks Philip, sorry for you loss. Wishing your family well.

  27. Joan Tauberg Gurrentz

    Phil – First of all my condolences – it does not matter what age we lose our parents, loss is loss – and I am so sorry – your family, your dad – so imprinted in my life – childhood, sunday school, growing up – part of the “group” – your parents were always so kind, friendly, – we all knew that your dad was incredibly brilliant – at that time of our high school years – Dr. Werner was the Dean of Pitt Medical School – my father was in awe of your dad – the prestige of his position in academia as well as his knowledge – who knew we had such a high powered neighborhood?! Your dad was your dad – my dad – a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon was my dad – all our families were blessed! What stands out about your dad, aside of his massive contributions in so many scientific fields was his love of you – you may have not seen nor realized but we all knew of his incredible love for you- do you recall your 4th leap year surprise birthday party…a bunch of us – I can’t recall the whole group – but we went to your parents – Marian and Gerhard – to ask if we could throw you a surprise “4th” (16th) birthday party – we asked permission to make it themed as if you were turning 4 and they both were so excited. Of course we could have it at the house and they were “game” for the surprise. Karen was younger but helped us all set it up at your house on Bennington. The surprise went off without a hitch – and I vividly recall the happiness of your parents that night – the love for their son, the joy of the friends that he had and just to share in your child’s happiness. It was such a fun night. I have shared that Leap Year Birthday story with my own kids so the folklore continues…
    How odd was it to read in today’s Post Gazette your dad’s passing along with Kirby Krieger’s mom – two friends from growing up to lose a parent – it is a club I would never want another to join – as my dad passed 6 years ago – I am so sorry that you have become part of the group that has lost a parent.
    My condolences on your loss – to you, to Karen, your families. May his memory be a blessing and know that his life’s work was to so many.
    Take care friend

  28. May the sun always shine on your windowpane, May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain, May the hand of a friend always be near you, May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you!

  29. My condolences. Your father led a very full life and its clear you and your family have many fond memories to cherish.

  30. Philip, my condolences. What a fantastic life your father led!

  31. CAPT Dan Smith,USN

    Philip,
    A fitting tribute from a loving son. You are right that your father’s ur-force lives on in you and your sister. You are his living legacies.
    A great life fully and richly lived.
    R, Dan

  32. What a magnificent story and life! My hat is off to Gerhard Werner for living a full and meaningful life. May we all learn from him.

  33. With all the eloquence I can muster, wow. I mean WOW!

  34. Well done Philip. What a beautiful picture of the life of your father and how he loved you, your family, and his work. My father in-law passed away two years ago suddenly of a heart attack. As I read your post it reminded me of him and how much I still miss him.
    Peace,
    Chris

  35. What a amazing life! Thanks for sharing your fathers life and accomplishments.

  36. A very nice memory of your father.
    Enjoyed it very much,
    Thanks for shearing his story, trouly magnificent!

  37. Your father was one of the finest men I have ever met. I could not have gotten my PhD without him. God bless you Gerhard! Thank you so much for being my mentor.

  38. Philip – what a beautiful tribute to your father. I was a librarian at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic in Pittsburgh, where Gerhard was professor and your mom Marian was our “Patients Librarian”. As noted by the UT librarians, your dad was a lover of books, any kind of books. Many of our library’s books were on complex and esoteric topics in psychoanalysis, psychiatry, neurobiology, etc – and we knew that Gerhard would be the first faculty member to borrow and read them. When we received books on approval and I wanted advice on whether they were worth adding to the collection, I often asked his opinion – but he very rarely, if ever, recommended that we send them back! Your father was a true gentleman and scholar in the finest sense of the word.

    Barbara Epstein

    • Thanks Barbara. I remember the first time my father donated books from his collection at home to WPIC. We’d simply run out of room at our house! It’s a practice I’ve adopted myself, both collecting and donating! Seriously, I am touched my how many librarians are leaving notes about my father. He was your greatest fan.

  39. There is nothing greater than a life well lived, honored, and remembered.

  40. Hello Philip,

    I too was a librarian at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh and had the good fortune of knowing your father. My colleague, Barbara Epstein, summed up so well what made Dr. Werner so special and a favorite of those who knew and worked with him. What I would like to add is how humble and personable your father was. He never let his vast knowledge, his stature in the field of psychiatry, medicine and WPIC get in the way of his big smile and warm interactions with the people around him. I can assure you Dr. Werner will be remembered fondly by many.

    • Thanks for your note – I never realized just how humble my father was until last week when I met so many of my parents friends’. Few, if any, had any idea of his achievements. I’m glad he was able to relate to people normally and connect with them on their level.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

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

  44. 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 .

  45. 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

  46. 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.

  47. I just read your loving tribute to your father. I knew your father from his time at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. I had the dual position of planning and coordinating moves and as Public Affairs Officer. I had to move his office and staff once or twice for construction work. At one time, the public affairs office did a profile of him and his career. His life was so interesting and he seemed to really enjoy the whimsical graphics we inserted into the printed article. He said to us after it was published and read by hospital employees that it was the best thing ever written about him. However, I think your remembrance here is much better.

    • Thanks Steve. He had a great sense of humor that got even better as he aged. Taught me that you could have humility and self awareness and that they complemented leadership and did not diminish it.

  48. Dear Phillip. Can I contact you?

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