A ‘Renaissance man’ for the ages

Guido Weiss at Washington University, where he is the Elinor Anheuser Professor of Mathematics.

By Ellen F. Harris, Special to the Jewish Light

There are accomplished people, there are successful people, and then there is Guido Weiss.

He speaks six languages fluently, is most comfortable in the wilderness, makes “the world’s best pizza,” and at the age of 82, plays tennis five times a week including three singles matches. 

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The Elinor Anheuser Professor of Mathematics at Washington University, Weiss calls himself “the beer professor.”  Internationally renown, he has trained and launched the careers of 42 doctorates and more than a dozen post-docs around the world.  As guest professor, he has taught in China, Argentina, Poland, New Zealand, France, Spain and Italy.  His former students often stay with him and his wife in their home near the university.

Weiss says he reads “almost anything,” novels in Italian, best sellers on politics and Steven Saylor’s mysteries set in ancient Rome.  He is knowledgeable about the fine arts, too. “He’s a polymath, a Renaissance man,” says his wife, Barbara Weiss, a retired molecular biologist from Washington University School of Medicine.  

Here’s what Weiss cannot do: resist making puns.  “I love dogs,” he says, patting Hugo, a large rescue beagle. “I love cats, too.” Pause.  “That’s where I acquired my catskills.”  

He speaks in a gentle voice with the courtly manner of a well-bred European.  He was born into a wealthy Sephardic and Jewish-Croatian family of scientists, professors and artists in Trieste, Italy, a cosmopolitan city on the Adriatic Sea.  A distant late cousin, Eric Weiss, was better known as Harry Houdini.  An uncle’s close friend was James Joyce, one of the many writers living in Trieste.  

Dr. Sigmund Freud, a close family friend, held baby Guido on his lap.  The father of psychoanalysis had trained his father, Dr. Edoardo Weiss, at University of Vienna, and the two regularly corresponded.  (Their letters are in the Library of Congress.)  His mother, Dr. Wanda Weiss, the second woman to graduate from that medical school, left pediatrics to become a Jungian analyst.  Weiss jokes about that; Jung broke from Freud to found a new branch of psychology.  

After the enactment of the 1938 anti-Semitic laws, Dr. Weiss was forced from the Italian Psychiatric Society, which he had co-founded.  Weiss was thrown out of school and his youth group, which included the son of dictator Benito Mussolini.

“I didn’t understand why,” Weiss says quietly. “The first time I went to a temple was for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary.” 

His father joined the Menninger Clinic, which sponsored a number of Jewish psychiatrists escaping Hitler and Il Duce.  Weiss remembers the day, Oct. 4, 1939, that he arrived in Topeka, Kan.: “I didn’t speak a word of English, but I could play soccer.”  The 10-year-old hit the ground running and scored so well that he quickly made friends and mastered the new language.  The family moved to Chicago when he was nearly 14.  

Sent to summer camp in Bemidji, Minn., Weiss developed into a superb outdoorsman.  By his late teens, he worked as a canoe guide in the Quetico National Park, in Canada, just above Minnesota.  “You can drop me by helicopter anywhere in the Quantico wilderness and wait a half an hour and I can tell you exactly where I am,” he says.  

Weiss was offered football scholarships to Northwestern University and Purdue University.  Instead, he chose University of Chicago, which lacked a football team [but where he played baseball, basketball and ran track]. “I chose Chicago because it was one of the best universities in the world.  I wanted an academic career,” he says.  He thought that would be in chemistry.  A dog and a disease changed his life.  

Over the summer, Weiss took a group camping in the north woods where a rabid dog bit him.  And he contracted infectious mononucleosis.  Sentenced to months of bed rest, he persuaded a math professor to let him enroll and study at home. He taught himself calculus.  Intrigued with mathematics and a beautiful math major named Mary Bishop, he wanted to learn more.   “Math is a different way of thinking.  It is a language.  One that is very precise,” he says. 

Weiss joined the coterie of students who met weekly with Enrico Fermi, the father of the atomic bomb.  Upon winning the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics, Fermi had left Italy with his Jewish wife and children and moved to the University of Chicago where he ran the Manhattan Project.  The group discussed abstract mathematical concepts and their application to physics.  “They were fascinating conversations,” Weiss says.  “Fermi was a wonderful man.  I was very close to him.”  

Weiss and Mary Bishop married and continued their doctorates at the University of Chicago.  Insisting that his wife was his equal, he declined job offers when the universities would not hire her, too.  In the 1950s and early ‘60s, academia rarely granted joint appointments.  Washington University did and the couple arrived on campus 50 years ago.  But their marriage ended and she died a few years later.

“I was invited to a party to meet the daughter of a rabbi,” Weiss says.  “Barbara Gibgot was there.”  He was instantly smitten with the pretty graduate student.  They married a year later, in 1964.  They have two sons and a grandson who also are outdoors people: Paul the chief program officer at Asphalt Green, in Manhattan, a fitness and sports facility; and Michael, the owner of Big Shark Bicycle Company, on Delmar Boulevard; and August, age 14.    

The Weiss family celebrates an unique holiday on December 29, “Guidmas Day,” or Guido’s birthday.  

He celebrates them in a series of photographs on his faculty website.  Several pictures feature the late Thor, a scrawny, frozen shitzu they rescued and named for the Norse god of thunder to give her strength.  He took her everywhere.

“Guido would ask his classes if they minded if Thor stayed,” Washington University Provost Edward S. Macias says.  “When they said no, he would say good because Thor didn’t mind them either.” 

Weiss is continuing his research in the field of harmonic analysis for which he was awarded the prestigious Chauvenet Prize in 1967.  Harmonic analysis is a branch of pure mathematics which offers many applications.  Using it, for example, solves problems in medicine.   “Harmonic analysis looks at signals in heartbeats and analyzes them,” he says.  “You analyze by the measurements which are mathematical functions.”  Harmonic analysis is used, also in fingerprint analysis.

The professor laments the way math is taught in America.  “We’re 39th out of 40 countries because the teaching of math is controlled by the department of education instead of by mathematicians.”

Weiss does not raise his voice as he says this.  He is always the courtly European.  Thoughtful, too.  

“He is very kind, very nice to everybody,” Macias says.  “When he comes to my office after a trip, he always brings a gift to my assistant.”