OBITUARIES: Dr. Robert Zweig, 77
Advocate for Cleaner Air and Alternative Fuels
Los Angeles Times February 25, 2002
By DENNIS McLELLAN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Dr. Robert Zweig, a Riverside family physician who witnessed the effects pollution was having on his patients and spent 35 years campaigning for cleaner air and promoting the use of alternative fuels, has died. He was 77.
Zweig, co-founder of the environmental group Clean Air Now, died Feb. 15 of complications of leukemia at Parkview Community Hospital Medical Center in Riverside, where he was a founder and board member.
Zweig, who once drank from the exhaust pipe of a hydrogen-powered pickup truck to demonstrate that clean water is a byproduct of the clean-burning fuel, never lost his passion as a clean-air champion. "Bob personified a clean-air hero," said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "He was an innovative thinker, helping to lead the region to an alternative fuel future."
"He was a visionary advocate for hydrogen in transportation," said James Lents, director of environmental policy at the College of Engineering-Center for Environmental Research and Technology at UC Riverside.
But Zweig wasn't just a visionary who talked about it, said Lents, who first met Zweig in the late '80s when Lents was executive officer of the South Coast AQMD.
"He was very active in the process of helping to find funding and to get agencies like the South Coast Air Quality Management District, SunLine Transit Agency in the desert and the university here to take a serious look at hydrogen and do some experimenting with it."
"He inspired people," said Virginia Field, who chairs the board of Clean Air Now. "He was respected by the air resources people and all the regulatory agencies because he was willing to work within the system rather than from outside. Lots of activists don't."
Zweig's concern with air pollution grew out of his family practice, where he saw many patients with respiratory problems.
"Children were sent to me by other doctors," he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in 1998. "I had to recommend that some patients leave the area.... You could see [smog] coming over the pass and spreading into Riverside. It was a brown soupy fog."
Declaring war on pollution, Zweig helped start the grass-roots organization Clean Air Now in 1969, and later the Clean Air Institute, one of the first antipollution research groups. Under Zweig's leadership, both organizations promoted hydrogen as an alternative, cleaner-burning fuel.
In the mid-'70s, Zweig arranged to bring one of the country's first hydrogen-powered buses to Riverside. To demonstrate the technology, he drove the bus up and down California and won research funding from the state Department of Transportation.
In the '80s, he donated several thousand dollars to help buy a hydrogen-powered pickup, which he gave to UC Riverside's College of Engineering-Center for Environmental Research and Technology.
"Only 20% of the energy from an internal combustion engine finds its way to the drive wheels, leaving 80% of the energy to go to waste," he told the Press-Enterprise last year. But with a fuel cell based on hydrogen, he said, the figures are reversed, with 80% of the energy going to the drive wheels.
"It reduces the energy need," he said. "And we can make hydrogen [fuel] in the United States."
Numerous awards recognizing his clean-air efforts came to Zweig in his later years. In 2001, he received the Jules Verne Award for lifetime contribution to hydrogen energy development at the 13th World Hydrogen Energy Conference in Beijing.
A Philadelphia native, Zweig served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946. He received his medical degree from Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania in 1952. A year later, Zweig and his family moved to California where he began a family practice residency at Riverside General Hospital.
Since 1972, when he began investigating alternative fuels, Zweig set a clean-air example.
"At that time propane was probably the cleanest, so we converted a car to propane and tried to convince other people to do the same," said Dolores, his wife of 55 years.
But by 1974, Zweig became convinced hydrogen was the way to go.
"From then on, he just plugged hydrogen whenever he could," his wife said. "Some people laughed at him at the time, but he never stopped."
Zweig continued to drive by example: Among his vehicles were a hydrogen-powered pickup and a hybrid electric- and gas-powered Honda Insight. He demonstrated the Honda to students at two high schools in Riverside one day late last month, his final appearance on behalf of Clear Air Now. The experience left him exhausted, his wife said.
"He just was just so convinced that the world has to have cleaner air, and he wanted to cut off our dependency on oil from the Middle East, and he wanted the children to grow up healthier," she said. "To that end, he just gave all of his extra energy."
In addition to his wife, Zweig is survived by two daughters, Tracy Pinnella of Santa Barbara and Wendy Micklus of Washington; three sons, Robert of Orange, Peter of Occidental and David of Colorado; five grandchildren; and a sister, Eleanor Scot of Long Beach.