former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

As Both a Scientist and a Mom, Yvonne Brill Deserved a Better Obit

In Blog on April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

There’s been a lot of fuss, and deservedly so, about The New York Times’ obituary of eminent rocket scientist and inventor Yvonne Brill.  The problem was instead of leading with a description of her significant scientific achievements, the obit writer began by letting readers know she made “a mean beef stroganoff” and was “the world’s best mom.”

In fairness, the obit writer got to the important stuff about her scientific career in the second paragraph, and The Times’ headline also helped communicate that this was a woman of significant accomplishment.

The Times quickly saw the error of its ways, and revised its opening paragraph.

And to tell you the truth, I am less upset about the sexism in the obit than the sheer lack of quality in the writing.  No one deserves a trite obit, particularly if your career has been both impressive, and in some ways, heroic.

Journalism is about letting subjects  – even deceased ones — speak for themselves.  I am not going to cast any feminist darts at the author of the piece (as that has already been covered in many other publications).  I can well imagine how it may have happened.  On deadline, you are asked to write an obit.  You contact the son, who talks a lot about his mother as he knows her.  You’ve got a lot of background info, and some good quotes.  You pull more off the internet.  You’re trying to write something a bit arresting.  The trouble is, you haven’t talked to enough people, and you haven’t let the subject speak to you, though the material is right in front of you.

If the real Yvonne Brill treasured her stroganoff over her rocket propulsion patent, so be it.  But anyone who continued to push for more recognition for women scientists while battling breast cancer, likely cared deeply about her work, something that she devoted her life to while still raising a family.

Only after giving us information that made the obit muddled and trivial – such as how she met her husband and that neither of them cared for square dancing, did the obit give us a telling detail about what she did the last week of her life, a detail which, if I had been writing this obit is what I would have led with.

This is what I would have written:

Yvonne Brill, 88, the inventor of a rocket propulsion system still used in communications satellites, died Wednesday in Princeton, N.J.    Throughout her career Mrs. Brill encouraged women to become engineers and scientists. Indeed, in her last week of life, as she was battling breast cancer, she was still writing letters recommending eminent women in engineering for professional awards.

I know that there’s been a push by female science writers to sanitize stories about women scientists and make them less about gender.  That makes sense in profiles solely about their work. But obituaries are about their lives. Obits can’t be gender neutral.

Gender was a part of who Yvonne Brill was, the struggles she had, and the choices she made.  She deserved a Times obit that was not only politically correct, but that better honored the woman she was in all her dimensions.



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