Yvonne Brill was a rocket scientist, not a chef.
by Emily Willingham
His grill skills rivaled George Foreman’s, and he treated his wife like a queen. Even though he coached his son’s baseball team, he still had time to keep his lawn looking the best in the neighborhood. His golf swing was poetry in motion, and no one could make a better martini. “The best father and husband anyone could want,” said a bereaved member of the immediate family.
Oh, and he also was a scientist who was top in his field, whose innovations basically made it possible for us to live the way we do today. And he won some awards and stuff.
How should an obituary about a scientist who is famous for doing science begin? With culinary skills? Parenting prowess? Parts of the scientist’s life that had nothing at all to do with science?
Yes, of course, it should begin with the scientific work that made that person merit a celebrity obituary. Yet the New York Times last week failed that fairly basic measure of anyone’s worth in an obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, who’s best known for developing the propulsion system that keeps satellites in orbit where they belong. You know, really important stuff. For example, in addition to her great achievement, she received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama in 2011 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. Coolest of all? She even worked for a couple of years at NASA in the 1980s on the rocket motor for the space shuttle. She was, quite literally, a freaking rocket scientist.
But the original NY Times obituary left that information for later paragraphs. The first version of the obit (it’s since been revised without any note appended about the change) didn’t start with rocket scientist or “famous for.” No. It started with “mean beef stroganoff”:
She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
It’s absolutely wonderful that her son thought she was the world’s best mom. Brill herself might have felt that being the world’s best mom was a crowning personal achievement. I’d feel the same way myself and be deeply, postmortemly pleased, were it possible, if a grown offspring of mine said that about me in the New York Times.
But. Being the world’s best mom is not the reason someone has a public obituary in one of the most recognized publications in the world.
The opening NY Times paragraph is now revised so that the stroganoff is gone entirely and the “rocket scientist” gets first mention. Even with the change, the obituary still fails the Finkbeiner test. And everyone is talking about this massive fail on the part of the New York Times, far more than they seem to be talking about Brill herself.
The NY Times is not alone. The Washington Post, in its article about Brill, left out the stroganoff but otherwise followed a very similar pattern of emphasizing Brill’s “in spite of being a woman” success instead of … her success as a scientist.
Sure, an obituary about anyone is an appropriate place to mention surviving loved ones, to reference how much the survivors loved the departed. Even to talk a little about their history. In a public obituary about a scientist whose contributions were critical to the conduct of modern life, though, information like that needs to appear much later than paragraph one. Her science, her achievement, she herself as a scientist deserved the top spot.
The NY Times piece doesn’t even get into the detail of her contributions until the eighth paragraph. Has there ever been an obituary about a male scientist with details about his scientific contributions buried eight paragraphs in? Or details anywhere about what a great cook he is? The Washington Post piece barely gives details about her science, getting to them at paragraph 17 and saving a great description of the system she designed almost for the very end of the piece. Seriously, the Ottawa Citizen did a better job.
Just before that eighth paragraph in the NY Times, the obituary quotes Brill on managing the many sexist situations she encountered in the course of her scientific career:
“You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted,” she said.
Brill is no longer with us to advise whether or not this particular situation would have upset her, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us must be cheerful about it. Perhaps saddest of all, if you Google her name now, you get more top hits coupling it with “stroganoff” than you do describing her many achievements.
Image credit: Public domain U.S. government image, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons has no images available of Brill herself, a common situation for famous female scientists.