By Monica Amarelo
American Association for the Advancement of Science
September 8, 2004
Gerard Piel, 89, a past president of AAAS and the publisher best remembered for infusing life into Scientific American, died of complications from a stroke on 5 September at Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens, NY. Piel virtually invented modern science journalism. He believed that combining the highest standards of science with the best traditions of journalism could enlighten the public. His aim was known to many – that "science shall occupy the same place in the mind of every thinking citizen that it occupies as an integral part of our modern civilization."
Piel was born into a brewing family, Piel Brothers Brewery, on 1 March 1915, in Woodmere, NY. In 1937, he earned his bachelor's degree in history from Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude.
He began his career as an editorial trainee at Time Inc. In his six years at Life Inc., Piel was eventually promoted to science editor for Life magazine. In his 2001 book "The Age of Science," Piel confessed that he had the most unlikely scientific preparation. He was America's foremost nonscientist, acquiring knowledge in many disciplines of science. The New York Times once reported that his history of scientific discovery in the twentieth century was similar to a text for general science.
Piel borrowed money to buy Scientific American in 1947. The publication, established in 1845, had reached a lull in its popularity. Piel took over the periodical just after World War II, made it over, and four years after his purchase, the magazine showed a profit. During his tenure as publisher, circulation topped one million.
In 1984, Piel became the chairman of the company, and two years later oversaw the sale of the magazine to Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a giant German publishing enterprise and its current publisher.
From 1985 – 1987, Piel served as AAAS President and Chairman and was the first journalist to head the organization. He presided over the 152nd AAAS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA. Piel was a passionate advocate for more federal support of science education in primary and secondary schools and felt AAAS should mount a campaign for the national reform of science education.
Apart from his career in publishing, he served as an overseer at Harvard University, a trustee at Radcliff College, and on the boards of Phillips Andover Academy, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Garden. He also received more than twenty honorary doctorates and numerous awards in the scientific community.
A prolific writer, Piel authored several books, most recently "The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the 20th Century" (Basic Books, 2001). Other titles included "Science in the Cause of Man" (Knopf, 1962), "The Acceleration of History" (Knopf, 1972) and "Only One World" (Freeman, 1992). He was co-editor of "The World of Rene Dubos: A Collection of His Writings" (Holt, 1990).
Piel is survived by his wife, Eleanor Jackson Piel, a civil rights attorney; a daughter, Eleanor P. Womack of California; a son, Jonathan B. Piel of Manhattan; 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.