History Column

Engineering Hall of Fame: Passings

By Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D.

The change from old year to new is a time when many publications run lists of “whom we lost” in the prior 12 months. The IEEE’s member newspaper, The Institute, records memorials to important IEEE members throughout the year. Needless to say, anyone appearing on this list has made major contributions to engineering throughout his or her life, to the profession or its technologies or both. There is an interesting phenomenon, however, of people who were educated as engineers but then went on to contribute to society in very different ways. So, I thought it might be interested to highlight three celebrities whose deaths in 2013 were highly publicized and who were engineers–but whose obituaries did not appear in The Institute because their ultimate claims to fame lay in the arts.

On 4 April, The New York Times carried an obituary for Daniel Hoffman (born 3 April 1923 in New York City), a former Poet Laureate of the United States (www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/books/daniel-hoffman-former-us-poet-laureate-dies-at-89.html). Fans and critics had long praised his versatility in a number of literary forms. What he did not widely get credit for, however, was technical writing. Yet before World War II, he enrolled in the engineering school at Columbia, planning to work in a technical field. When the war interrupted his studies, the Army Air Corps put him to work on a technical magazine that provided abstracts of articles relevant to military research and development. It was perhaps this experience that caused him, upon his return from the war, to switch his major to English, in which he eventually earned his Ph.D. He then went on to an illustrious career as both an academic and a widely read poet.

On 7 May, The New York Times reported the death of “pioneering theater director” Herbert Blau (born 3 May 1926 in Brooklyn; www.nytimes.com/2013/05/08/theater/herbert-blau-iconoclastic-theater-director-dies-at-87.html). Among his many accomplishments, he is probably best known to theater-goers around the world for founding the Actors Workshop in San Francisco in 1952. But how many of those drama fans know that his bachelor’s degree was in chemical engineering from New York University? Blau, who had not been exposed to theater growing up, got introduced to the New York scene while an undergraduate and decided to try his hand at playwriting. The results got him admitted to the graduate drama school at Stanford, from which he launched an illustrious career that was to include three years as the founding Dean of Theater at the California Institute for the Arts. You might say that he traded chemical engineering for the alchemy of the theater.

Finally, just two days later on 9 May, The New York Times published the obituary of Fredrick L. McKissack (born 12 August 1939 in Nashville), a noted African-American children’s author (www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/books/fredrick-l-mckissack-childrens-book-author-dies-at-73.html?_r=0). With his wife Patricia, he penned numerous children’s books on topics in African-American history, including a well-received biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. As the obituary reveals, however, Mr. McKissack did not start out as a writer. The son and grandson of architects, he served in the Marines and then went to Tennessee State University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, even while participating in the civil rights movement. Out of school, he went to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, but soon left to found his own company. However, at a certain point the McKissacks realized that writing–and particularly telling children the story of African-American history–was their passion. Patricia McKissack quit her jobs as a teacher and editor, and Frederick sold his company. The rest is literary history.

Michael Geselowitz, Ph.D.

Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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