Piel, Gerard 1915-2004

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PIEL, Gerard 1915-2004

PERSONAL: Born March 1, 1915, in Woodmere, NY; died September 5, 2004, in Woodmere, NY; son of William (a brewer) and Loretto (Scott) Piel; married Mary Tapp Bird (in publishing), February 4, 1938 (divorced, 1955); married Eleanor Virden Jackson (a lawyer), June 24, 1955; children: (first marriage) Jonathan Bird, Samuel Bird (deceased); (second marriage) Eleanor P. Womack. Education: Harvard University, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1937.

CAREER: Time, Inc., New York, NY, editorial trainee, 1937-39; Life, New York, science editor, 1939-44; Henry J. Kaiser Co. and Associated Companies, Oakland, CA, assistant to president, 1945-46; Scientific American, New York, president, 1946-84, publisher, 1948-84, chairman of the board, 1985-87. Overseer of Harvard University; trustee of Radcliffe College, Phillips Academy, American Museum of Natural History, New York University, Foundation for Child Development, and Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

MEMBER: American Philosophical Society, Council on Foreign Relations, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (president, 1985; chairman, 1986), Institute of Medicine of National Academy of Sciences, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi.

AWARDS, HONORS: Sc.D., Lawrence College, 1956, Colby College, 1960, University of British Columbia, 1965, Brandeis University, 1965; Litt.D., Rutgers University, 1961, Bates College, 1974; L.H.D., Columbia University, 1962, Williams College, 1966; LL.D., Tuskegee Institute, 1963, University of Bridgeport, 1964, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, 1965, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1968. George K. Polk Award, 1961, for contribution to journalism; Kalinga Prize, UNESCO, 1962, Arches of Science Award, Pacific Science Center, 1969, and Rosenberger Medal, University of Chicago, 1973, all for contribution to public understanding of science; named publisher of the year, Magazine Publishers Association, 1980.


Science in the Cause of Man, Knopf (New York, NY), 1961, revised edition, 1962.

The Acceleration of History, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.

Gerard Piel on Arms Control: Science and Economics (booklet), Miller Center on Arms Control, University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1987.

(Editor, with Osborn Segerberg, Jr.) The World of René Dubos: A Collection from His Writings, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

Only One World: Our Own to Make and to Keep, W. H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1992.

The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century, illustrated by Peter Bradford, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Booklets published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (Santa Barbara, CA) include, Consumers of Abundance, 1961, and, with Ralph Helstein and Robert Theobald, Jobs, Machines, and People: A Conversation, 1964; contributor to a large number of periodicals, including Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Science, Foreign Affairs, Progressive, American Heritage, Nation, Science Monthly, Saturday Review, Life, Science Digest, BioScience, and Atlantic Monthly.

SIDELIGHTS: Gerard Piel, a man who graduated from Harvard as a journalism major without taking a single science class, later nurtured and grew Scientific American until it was the model for science reporting, a magazine that appealed to scientists and lay readers with an interest in science. Because of Piel's high standards and journalistic ethics all during his career, scientists who generally refused to publish in popular magazines wrote for Piel, who, even during the Cold War, was one of the country's leading advocates for open science information and opponents of censorship.

Piel was the grandson of one of the founders of the Piel Brothers Brewery, and his own father worked in the business. Piel's first contribution to a major magazine was with Life, where he began sorting pictures and then became editorial assistant to managing editor John Billings. Prior to that time, he worked for the short-lived Picture, and he married Mary Tapp Bird, who had been his supervisor there. When Billings charged the twenty-four-year-old Piel with editing Life's science department, Piel read science articles and convinced science writers to work with him, promising that their work would not be tampered with, that pictures would be added to enhance their writing, and that they could approve or change captions for the photographs. It was because of his consideration and professionalism that he built his reputation with writers.

His curious mind led Piel to develop stories and pictures that are remembered to this day, including an experiment for which he had a student of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Harold Edgerton use strobe lights to determine the path of a pitched curve ball. Piel soon realized that more than a science section was needed. A magazine devoted to science was his goal, but first, he needed more business experience. He arranged for a replacement at Life and went to work for Henry J. Kaiser, the wartime shipbuilder Piel had profiled several times in Life. After a year, the beginnings of a new magazine took shape, but before a single issue was published, McGraw-Hill came out with Science Illustrated. Piel and his partners and backers were correct in assuming that the competing magazine would be less scientific and more general than their planned publication. McGraw's project failed, and, in fact, Piel was asked to salvage it. He refused and spent two more years raising half of what he needed. He sent out one hundred pleas to scientists for their support, and every one wrote back that he would write for the new magazine.

But instead of launching a new title, Piel bought the faltering Scientific American, offered great science stories, increased circulation, and received an offer from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to take over the magazine. They were so impressed with Piel's content that they later ceased publication of their own Scientific Monthly, feeling that Piel was doing a better job of promoting science. The positive attention also drew in more investors and advertisers like General Electric, and reached the break-even point in 1951.

Piel's success was not without setbacks, however. In 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission forced the deletion of parts of articles about the creation of a hydrogen bomb, even though the information was in the public domain. In the same year, Piel resigned from the advisory board of a journal published by the Public Health Service after a loyalty check found that Scientific American had critiqued the evidence of the government in the Rosenberg spy trial, and when friends of Piel were questioned as to their loyalties.

Because of the growing circulation of Scientific American, advertising rates became prohibitive for most companies. When television became the new source for advertisers, the number of advertising pages dropped, although circulation continued to increase, and other competitors who tried to equal its popularity fell by the wayside. The Scientific American Library was created to publish science titles, and the circulation of the magazine exceeded one million copies, including international editions published in many languages.

Piel never wrote for his own magazine, using that space for contributors, but has written for many others. Following his retirement, he wrote Only One World: Our Own to Make and to Keep, in which he addresses the issues debated in the 1991 Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.Nathan Keyfitz reviewed the book in Scientific American, writing that "what gives Only One World vitality is its combining the healthy dissatisfaction of the young with a mature appreciation of the power of science and the industrial economy to move us to a more sustainable course than the one we have been following."

Piel described his The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century as "what I have learned about what scientists learned in the twentieth century." Piel drew on fifty-three years worth of Scientific American in sections titled "Light and Matter," "Space and Time," "The Living Cell," "Earth History and the Evolution of Life," and "Tools and Human Evolution." "The resulting book," noted Loren Graham in the New York Times Book Review, "is somewhat similar to a text for general science at the advanced high school or elementary college level, but infinitely more interesting. As Piel observes, such texts usually have an author named 'Dull.' Piel is anything but dull."

A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that "true to the mission he mapped out for his magazine, Piel is always aware of the general reader's needs, and takes care to outline basic principles as well as the broader implications of the discoveries he describes." Piel's recurring theme is that technology must be used to address the problems of global inequity. An Economist reviewer wrote that The Age of Science "provides a satisfying sting in the tail by acknowledging the broader social context within which scientific research takes place."

Piel's emphasis was on pure science. Graham noted that in recent years, Americans have become "much more sophisticated" and that during the years Piel was with Scientific American, they "thought that science was an unproblematic positive force; the most difficult questions connected with it were the technical issues themselves." Graham said that public opinion polls now show that Americans "are still usually enthusiasts for science, but they no longer believe that the most difficult problems concerning science are in the body of science itself; those problems are in the ways in which science interacts with society. In a time of discussions of cloning, bioterrorism, global warming, stem cell research, nuclear energy, genetically modified crops, and euthanasia, educated citizens have learned that knowledge of the basic science involved is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for intelligent decisions."

Graham also felt that since scientists often disagree with each other, "citizens in the new millennium feel a need for a new kind of science journalism that will neither praise nor condemn science, but instead help them sort their way through these extremely difficult issues." Graham wrote that Piel "succeeded brilliantly" with Scientific American and offered the hope that "another such talented journalist of the sciences will emerge in the near future who will respond to the need of the new century."



Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 137: American Magazine Journalists, 1900-1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 232-241.

Piel, Gerard, The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century, illustrated by Peter Bradford, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2001.


Booklist, October 15, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the Twentieth Century, p. 364.

Economist, January 12, 2002, review of The Age of Science.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2001, review of The Age of Science, p. 1406.

Library Journal, November 15, 2001, Wade M. Lee, review of The Age of Science, p. 95.

Nature, May 30, 2002, Zaheer Baber, review of The Age of Science, p. 489.

New Scientist, September 5, 1992, Eric Ashby, review of Only One World: Ours to Make and to Keep, p. 35.

New York Times Book Review, November 11, 2001, Loren Graham, review of The Age of Science, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1992, review of Only One World, p. 94.

Quarterly Review of Biology, June, 2003, Nadine Weidman, review of The Age of Science, p. 212.

Scientific American, February, 1993, Nathan Keyfitz, review of Only One World, p. 114.

Times Higher Education Supplement, July 5, 2002, John Maddox, review of The Age of Science, p. 23.*

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