Born Donald Jeffrey Herbert, July 10, 1917, in Waco-nia, MN; died of bone cancer, June 12, 2007, in Los Angeles, CA. Television personality. During the Golden Era of television, three children’s shows were must-see TV: The Lone Ranger, The Howdy Doody Show, and Watch Mr. Wizard. Television personality Don Herbert knew he was on to something when Mr. Wizard science clubs began popping up around the country. Watch Mr. Wizard aired from 1951 to 1965. Herbert, through his show, taught science fundamentals to masses of children in a way that entertained.
Herbert was born in 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He studied English and general science at La Crosse State Normal College; however, Herbert was more interested in the theater, participating in several college productions. After he earned a degree in 1940, he acted in summer stock locally before moving to New York.
Herbert joined the Army Air Forces, and became a B-54 bomber pilot. As a pilot during World War II, he flew in missions over Italy, Germany, and Yugoslavia. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters. Herbert had reached the rank of captain by the end of his tour of duty.
Following his stint in the Army Air Forces, Herbert worked as an actor, model, and radio-show writer. He began developing Watch Mr. Wizard, and the program debuted in 1951 on WMAQ-TV in Chicago. Speaking in terms easily understood by children and demonstrating use of common household items, Watch Mr. Wizard became hugely popular. “If you used scientific equipment that’s strange to the child, it’s not going to help him or her understand,” Herbert told the Voice of America “Our World” program, as recounted in his New York Times obituary by Richard Goldstein.
Watch Mr. Wizard soon aired in more than 100 markets and moved to New York. Herbert only had basic scientific knowledge, but he soon accumulated 18 file cabinets of notes and learned new experiments by doing them himself. Unlike the admonitions of many of twenty-first century programs to not try this at home, Watch Mr. Wizard encouraged boys and girls to duplicate his experiments. Soon 5,000 Mr. Wizard science clubs operated throughout the nation. In its heyday, club membership had more than 100,000 children.
Using a boy or girl to assist, Herbert sparked an interest in the field of science. George Tressel, who worked with the National Science Foundation, was quoted by Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Over the years, [Herbert] has been personally responsible for more people going into the sciences than any other single person in this country.”
Watch Mr. Wizard was on the air from 1951 until 1965. It aired for one more season in 1971, and then as Mr. Wizard’s World on the cable network Nickel-odeon from 1983 to 1990. Herbert, after the show’s end, began frequenting the couches of such talk shows as The Tonight Show and was one of the first guests on Late Night With David Letterman. He was also a panelist on the game show Hollywood Squares.
In addition to writing for his show, Herbert wrote several science books, including Mr. Wizard’s Supermarket Science, and Mr. Wizard’s Experiments for Young Scientists. The show was honored numerous times, including a Peabody Award in 1953 and the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Award for “Best Science TV Program for Youth.” Herbert died on June 12, 2007, in his home in Los Angeles, of complications from bone cancer. He was 89. He is survived by his second wife, Norma, three children, three stepchildren, and 13 grandchildren. Sources: Chicago Tribune, June 13, 2007, sec. 2, p. 12; Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2007, p. B10; MSNBC.com, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19196808.tif/ (March 23, 2008); New York Times, June 12, 2007, p. C13; Official Web site of Mr. Wizard Studios, http://www.mrwizardstudios.com (June 13, 2007); Washington Post, June 13, 2007, p. B6.
—Ashyia N. Henderson