In Memoriam: Abraham J. Siegel

Abraham Siegel

Abraham J. Siegel

January 24, 2011

Tags: Awards + Announcements

With the passing last week of Board Member Emeritus Abraham Siegel, Whitehead Institute has lost a true friend and one of its earliest and most trusted advisers.

Abe, as he was known, was Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management when he joined Whitehead's Founding Board of Directors in 1982, and he proved instrumental in guiding the Institute through its formative years. Abe's keen intelligence, profound wisdom, and wonderful personality made him an exceptional adviser, representative, spokesperson, and leader.

Current Board Members Arthur Brill and Peter Whitehead recall with admiration Abe's measured manner and diplomacy as he built the consensus necessary to establish Whitehead Institute within the MIT community

"There were a few sticky issues in the beginning," Arthur says, "But Abe was so wise, so even-keeled, and so experienced that he was able to let everyone have their say and then somehow get everyone to move forward for the good of the Institute. He had a unique blend of sagacity, acuity, and statesmanship."

"Abe set a really nice tone for the Board from the start," adds Peter. "I remember I was a young man in my mid-30s, and here we were founding Whitehead Institute at the very august MIT, and we were dealing with very high-powered authorities. And there was Abe, with this modesty and directness. He wasn't a position or a title. He was a real and genuine person."

Peter adds that Abe would remain genuine throughout his 10 years of service on the Whitehead Board and later as the Board's first Member Emeritus: "Abe was completely dedicated to MIT and the Whitehead Institute. It was his world."

And so it was, as he forged a distinguished, nearly 40-year academic career entirely at MIT. Born in New York City in 1922, Abe attended public schools and graduated first in his class at Stuyvesant High School at the age of 16. He graduated summa cum laude from City College of New York with a degree in romance languages. Upon graduating, he enlisted in the Army Air Force, serving in Europe during World War II. After the war, he earned an MA in economics from Columbia University and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, studying with the renowned economist Clark Kerr.

In 1954, Abe was appointed to the MIT faculty in the Department of Economics and became a full professor 10 years later, with a joint appointment with the Sloan School of Management. He was named Dean of the Sloan School in 1981, and, during his seven-year tenure as Dean, oversaw reorganizations of the school's academic curriculum, executive education programs, and physical space. Shortly before his retirement as dean, he was named the inaugural Howard W. Johnson Professor of Management, and in 1996, the Sloan School established the Abraham J. Siegel Professorship of Management in acknowledgment of his vast impact on the school.

Former Whitehead Institute Director Gerald Fink says Abe's stature at MIT was of enormous benefit not just to Whitehead Institute, but also to him personally as a then-new Director. "Abe gave me and those around him the feeling that he genuinely cared about our success," he says. "He was avuncular, warm, and friendly, with a broad intelligence about what we (Whitehead Institute) were and what our science was about, and he was able to see how all that fit into the greater picture at MIT."

Gerry credit's Abe's counsel and leadership on the Board with helping to guide the Institute through a number of critically important strategic initiatives, including building expansion and the establishment of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research. He adds that Abe's unique understanding of the culture of an academic research institution was the impetus for the establishment of the Abraham J. Siegel Fellowship, awarded annually to a graduate student training at Whitehead Institute.

"He realized that graduate students are committing themselves to an uncertain career path," Gerry says. "So he had an unusual sensitivity toward that."

Whitehead Member Susan Lindquist, who succeeded Gerry as Institute Director, also had immense admiration for Abe.

"Abe was an amazing man," she says. "He had the highest standards in everything he did. He brought incredible wisdom and experience to the Board, as well as a gracious and generous spirit. He was a great help to me and the Institute when he was on the Whitehead Board of Directors."

Upon learning of Abe's death, Whitehead Institute Founding Director David Baltimore wrote: "Abe was a great person and a great friend of the Whitehead Institute. His judgment was so sound and his wisdom so deep."

All those who knew Abe echo this sentiment. We will miss him deeply and offer his wife Lillian and the entire Siegel family our most heartfelt condolences.

-- David C. Page

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