Piel was the son of William F. J. Piel, a brewer, and Loretto (Scott) Piel, a homemaker. He was the fourth of six children and the grandson of one of the founders of Piel Brothers brewery. The year Piel was born his father took over the family business. Piel attended the Jesuit Brooklyn Preparatory School and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he wrote for the school newspaper and the literary magazine. Family tradition claims that Piel was bored by his physics teacher and failed the course. Determined to show up his instructor, Piel memorized every formula in the book and its proper application and so achieved a perfect score on his College Board examination. Piel earned his AB in history from Harvard University in 1937. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Although he was slim in build, Piel lettered in varsity wrestling. Interestingly, he graduated without taking a single science course.
Piel started his career in 1937 in the mail room at the J. Stirling Getchell advertising agency. He soon realized he had been given the job because of Getchell’s desire to acquire the Piel Brewery account. The job, however, led to Piel’s first break in journalism, working on Getchell’s new magazine called Picture, which Getchell shut down after three issues, deeming it too expensive to produce. It was at Picture that Piel met his first wife, Mary Tapp Bird, who had been his supervisor at the magazine. The couple married on 4 February 1938, had two sons, and divorced in 1955. On 24 June 1955 Piel married Eleanor Virden Jackson, and they had one daughter.
Piel’s next job was with Life, where he started in 1937, also in the mailroom. Piel soon moved up to working as an assistant to the associate editor Alexander King, whom Piel considered one of his most influential mentors. In 1939 John Shaw Billings, the editor of Life, asked Piel to head the science department. “The idea was that if I could understand what I was writing and publishing, then so could the reader,” Piel explained years later. Piel immediately began to read everything he could find on science. His biggest task was to persuade scientists to trust him. Many scientists had had unpleasant experiences with mass circulation magazines that had a tendency to introduce hype into their science reporting. Piel gained their trust by introducing authenticity. He also earned their cooperation by asking them to help with photo captions.
Piel’s work at Life convinced him that there was a need for a general science magazine—one that would tell other scientists and people interested in science about work in fields outside their specialties. To pursue this venture, Piel believed he had to learn about business. In January 1945 he left Life and went to work as a personal assistant to the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, whom he had profiled in 1942. A year with Kaiser supplied Piel with the business schooling he needed.
In the autumn of 1945 Piel, the journalist Dennis Flanagan, and the management consultant Donald H. Miller, Jr., began to talk about starting a new magazine of science. By June 1946 the magazine had a commitment from the businessman Lessing J. Rosenwald to put up one-third of the estimated start-up capital. The prospectus for the magazine would be “to serve the need for information concerning the progress of science, engineering and medicine in all their branches and in their application at the social and economic level.” Shortly before the magazine’s first publication date Piel discovered that Scientific American was for sale, and he and his fellow investors bought the magazine in September 1947.
Piel and his colleagues refocused Scientific American so that the articles would be written by experts but be of interest to the general public. The typical reader was expected to be someone who knew about one area of science but wanted to know about other areas. The early issues covered the physical, biological, and social sciences, engineering, and medicine. Piel also considered it the function of the magazine to cover the relation between science and society.
Throughout the 1970s Scientific American published many articles arguing for international nuclear disarmament and reassessment of the military strategies of mutually assured destruction. In 1984 Piel became the chairman of the company and two years later oversaw the sale of the magazine to the German publishing enterprise Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck. Also in 1984 Piel stepped away from his day-to-day duties as publisher and assumed the role of chairman of Scientific American, a position he held until he retired in 1994.
From 1985 to 1987 Piel served as the president and then the chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was the first journalist to head the organization. Piel was a passionate advocate for federal support of science education in primary and secondary schools and promoted an American Association for the Advancement of Science campaign for the national reform of science education.
Piel never gave up his personal campaign to educate the government and public about the necessity for understanding science. Piel’s activities earned him many awards and more than twenty honorary degrees. He received the George Polk Award in 1961 for national reporting; the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 1962; the Arches of Science Award of the Pacific Science Center in 1969; and the Rosenberger Medal from the University of Chicago in 1973 for contributions to public understanding of science. He was named publisher of the year in 1980 by the Magazine Publishers Association. Piel died on 5 September 2004 in Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, of complications after a stroke. His remains were cremated.
Piel provided a forum for scientific information that had not previously existed at a time when it was most needed. His importance lies in his recognition of the growing impact of science in the second half of the twentieth century and the necessity for public education about science. Piel believed that combining the highest standards of science with the best traditions of journalism could enlighten the public. His aim was that science should “occupy the same place in the mind of every thinking citizen that it occupies as an integral part of our modern civilization.” Piel wrote several books, including The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the 20th Century (2001), Science in the Cause of Man (1961), The Acceleration of History (1972), and Only One World (1992), in which his thesis is that people can decide the future of humanity.
Stephen B. Adams, Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur (1997), contains anecdotes provided by Piel. Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (2001), contains Piel’s views on fallout shelters. Obituaries are in the New York Times (7 Sept. 2004), Washington Post (8 Sept. 2004), Science (17 Sept. 2004), and Scientific American (Nov. 2004).