History

In 2014, NESW co-founders Jim Cornell and Bob Cooke consented to raid their memories for the early history of the independent Boston-area science writers organization.

The Beantown Chronicles Part I: An Early History of NESW

 by Jim Cornell

In November 1977, at the height of what many now consider to be “The Golden Age of American Science Journalism,” Bob Cooke ( then at The Boston Globe) and myself (then at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or CfA), attended a CASW meeting at New York’s Rockefeller University.

At the end of the last session, a local journalist-host announced that a group of fellow   Big Apple science writers planned an informal gathering for the next week, with an on-the-record speaker and liquid refreshments, and invited any of us hanging around to attend.

In a perfect Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney moment, Bob and I turned to each other and said, almost simultaneously: “We should do the same in Boston!”

And so we did. On January 26, 1978, with beer and cold cuts from the Fresh Pond Deli in West Cambridge and a list of invitees drawn primarily from NASW’s roster of New England members, we held a party-cum-press briefing in the Phillips Auditorium of the Harvard College Observatory.

Our guest speaker was MIT’s Michael Dertouzos, who colleague Bill

Struble once described as “a great, big, cigar-chomping bear of a man.”   Setting a model for many of the speakers who would follow him, Dertouzos gave us a candid, personal, and, most important, prescient view of America’s digital future.

The first meeting set another model for our group: we simply passed the hat to cover the cost of brew, baloney, and cab fare for the speaker.

This was to be the hallmark of our New England group. As Bob recalls: “We never took the trouble to have a formal constitution, by-laws or such—no officers, no dues, no newsletter.

“We didn’t really have a lot of science writers in the area [then], so the meetings were just PR folks like Jim, me from the Globe, no one from The Herald, a handful of freelancers, maybe some from tech publications (Cahners, Laser Focus), and maybe a few students. “

“Basically, we just got together to schmooze–ethically, of course!  And, our speakers were catch-as-catch-can.”

Bob is a little too modest about that last point. Using his clout with the Globe and the administrative support of (a largely-unaware) CfA, we were able to scoop up some outstanding speakers from the extraordinary pool of local R&D talent.

For example, our second meeting, on June 16 that same year, was a much more formal sit-down affair, preceded by cocktails and canapés, in the Globe’s Executive Dining Room high above Morrissey Boulevard. (How times and fortunes have changed!)   Mike Fedak, an Emperor penguin expert recently returned from Antarctica, described, among other things, the dynamics of waddling and the energy toll it took on birds better designed for swimming.

Following thereafter what might be generously called “an informal schedule,” the New England group met frequently, if sporadically, over the next couple of years, but usually only when there was something worth meeting for.

As Bob puts it: “We were [always] aiming, of course, for something new and interesting, and perhaps newsworthy. Among the [early] speakers was MIT’s Harold (Doc) Edgerton showing off his ‘double piddler’ and discussing his invention of strobe photography. Not new, perhaps, but always entertaining…especially following the Loch Ness fuss [ in which the Doc tried to film the monster—and Bob managed to break the press embargo imposed by The NY Times and our local colleague Dennis Meredith, then with Technology Review]. We also had a nice evening with MIT’s William Thilly, the biologist/wrestler who discussed new methods for producing biological substances such as interferon. “

Our meetings were held at local loci of science and technology: the Museum of Science, the Aquarium, the Harvard MCZ, the CfA, Boston University, and, with some regularity, the MIT and Harvard Faculty Clubs.   And our speakers were torn straight from the pages of Who’s Who in American Science: E.O. Wilson, Robert Langer, Gerald Fink, Robert Weinberg, Andy Knowles, and scores of other local lights.

By the mid-1980s, the New England Science Writers (NESW), as we now unofficially called ourselves, was a fully established regional group. We had a members’ roster and mailing list—pre-digital paper labels—and a bank account, of sorts. A small pro forma fee was charged for each meeting—just to give the allusion that we couldn’t be influenced—but the real costs of any given meeting were usually covered by the host institution.

[Sometimes our “journalistic integrity” was sorely tested. For-profit research institutions—say, A.D. Little—might lay on lavish spreads of fine food and drink in hopes of encouraging favorable coverage. I don’t remember refusing any such hospitality, but, neither can I recall anyone being that easily bought.

One of the funnier such experiences was a night at the Hayden Planetarium. We were supposed to have a no-host bar. Unfortunately (or not), the late Jack Carr, then director, forgot to apply for a temporary liquor license, so he couldn’t legally sell us drinks. Instead, he just gave them away. I am not sure what we saw in the dome that night: the Stars of Winter –or the Psychedelic Laser Show!]

Was NESW the first NASW local or regional group? The historical record is far from clear, and the lack of any organization chart or list of officers from that time doesn’t help. We certainly predated (although not by much) the Northern California and Washington DC gangs, but New York may well been there before us. Its website claims founding in 1978.

Ironically, it is hard for any one group to claim primacy, since NASW –for liability reasons, then and now—never considered any of the regional groups “official” chapters, although it occasionally provided modest funds for local projects –and parties. Of course, from the very beginning, we never considered NASW membership a prerequisite for joining NESW– anyone willing to pay for drinks and dinner was invited in.

[For someone really obsessed with tracking the timeline of American science writing,   an archive of NASW records is maintained at Cornell University. The history of the early, pre-digital, days are hard to access, but Prof. Bruce Lewenstein can find a graduate student willing to do specific searches for small change.]

Interestingly, NESW wasn’t even the first Boston-area science writers group. In the late 60s, a mixed bag of reporters, tech writers, and PR hacks associated with Route 128 research formed an organizational counterpart to their bosses’ Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). The renegade EIII, or Establishment for Institutional Information (The third “I” was undefined, although it probably stood for “Inebriated,” which was how most members were after a typical meeting.) was led by the legendary Mike Coady, then with ITEK.    Later, Coady joined Fairchild Publications and, somewhat incongruously, became Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Wear Daily and then, famous (infamous?) as the founding editor of “W,” the outrageous voice of fashion in the 80s.

When Coady left Boston for New York in the early 1970s, his EIII gang disbanded and many of its techie members, as Bob Cooke as noted, were among the first NESW attendees.  Oddly, few local medical writers, even those at the Globe and Herald  chose to join us, probably because they had their own group, the New England Medical Writers Association, officially affiliated with a larger national organization. (Judy Linn, the AMWA’s long-time local leader, organized a few meetings of mutual interest to our otherwise disparate groups.)

Luckily, we could draw upon the unusual number of Beantown freelancers specializing in science, including David Lyon, Jeff Hecht, Steve Dickman, Andy Chaiken, and Anita Harris, to name a few.   NESW was a wonderful and fluid mix of writers, academics, and PR people. Perhaps because of the science unit at WGBH, we had a number of TV folks in our ranks, among them, Ethan Herberman, Gino del Guercio, Steve Lyons, Karen Hartley, and, from Channel 5, Michael Guillen, as well as broadcast-reporter-turned-naturalist, Jack Borden.

Students from the BU graduate program joined us during the school year, as did an occasional student at Harvard or MIT. By contrast, staff in MIT’s Press Office –with the exception of Bill Struble and his then-retired former boss, Jeff Wiley—weren’t particularly interested in participating.   But staff members of Technology Review, including editor John Mattill and, later, his successor, Steve Marcus, as well as reporter Dennis Meredith, came often. And, despite its apparent disdain for public outreach, Harvard’s News Office always had some top science writers on staff, many of whom joined us, including Fred Hapgood, Emily Isberg, Dava Sobel, Marjorie Sandor, and Bill Cromie.

Remarkably, the “New England” in our name was quite apt, since many writers scattered about the region made the extra effort to attend our largely Boston-centric meetings: Art Clifford of UMass Amherst was a regular, Gene Emery from the Providence Journal came occasionally, as did writers from as far away as New Hampshire and Maine. And, many writers from even more distant parts, such as ex-Time staffer and New Yorker Fred Golden , who edited WHOI’s Oceanus in the late 80s, became active and contributing members during their temporary sojourns here.

Another major factor in NESW’s growth was the creation of the Knight Fellowships in Science Journalism at MIT. Under the leadership of Victor McElheny, the program attracted top reporters from around the country (and, later, the world) to spend a sabbatical year in Cambridge, soaking up science and technology—and poaching on what had been our exclusive preserve of news sources!

Many Knight Fellows became regular attendees of NESW events—and several (most notably, Richard Saltus, Linda Garmon, and the late Karen Klinger) remained on after their fellowships to become permanent members of the local scribbling community.

At about the same time, 1984, Bob left the Globe for a job at the Atlanta Constitution and, then, two years later, a much better, happier, and more productive post at Newsday on Long Island.   He left behind in New England the legacy of a mature and solidly established organization of science writers.

As he recalls, in a classic bit of understatement: “I think we were fortunate in trying to get it going when we did, because there was –and still is–so much fundamental scientific research going on in the Boston area. Local scientists were deeply involved in the space program, the birth of the genetic revolution, etc. There was much to talk about– and much to learn.”

Another part of Bob’s legacy was the advice that our group should always have one real working- press type on the masthead. Of course, this was a time when the distinction between those who promoted science and those who reported it was a little sharper than it is now.

Thus, Alison Bass, then with the Globe , became NESW’s second media representative, while I continued to provide the administrative support. (In truth, my long-suffering secretary, Mary Juliano, and my various writer-assistants, including Arlene Walsh, Caroline Lupfer, Julie Corliss, and Megan Watzke, did the real work–maintaining mailing lists, distributing meeting notices, and juggling our meager financial resources).

Alison was on board for some notable (and newsworthy) NESW moments: An insider tour of the newly minted and definitely hot Whitehead Institute in early 1985; a long and fun-filled research weekend at Woods Hole that September (organized by Shelley Lauzon, another NESW pioneer); a 1986 session at the doomed Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in Hudson, where the CEO inadvertently alerted reporters ( and alarmed local first-responders!) that his chip labs were awash in toxic chemicals; and, in February 1988, hosting the visiting AAAS press corps at the Commonwealth Brewery–perhaps the first of what has become an annual event wherever the AAAS meets, including at least three such parties in Boston since then. (Interestingly, Richard Saltus has been in on the planning of all these events, including that first monumental first.)

The next year, when Alison moved on to other things, she suggested that her good friend Laura Van Dam of Technology Review might be the perfect media representative in the NESW partnership.

Indeed, Laura brought to NESW the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication she showed in all her endeavors–from editing to reporting to book-scouting to motherhood, marriage, and mentoring. A true force of nature, Laura brow-beat reluctant scientists into meeting with us–and then into saying things that were genuinely news-worthy.

Several events during our dual reign even made headlines: the wrinkle-reducing promise of Retin A; the revelation that airline pilots were often asleep at the wheel; and the first hints of the Hepatitis C scourge.

Throughout the early 1990s, we had a host of other fascinating, if less CNN-moment events: in the MIT Robot Lab mechanical cockroaches raced around our shoes; at the MFA we discovered mysteries hidden within familiar masterpieces; and at the Harvard   Primate Center we discovered that chimps could be human. We visited the Magnet Lab, the MIT Museum, and the Tufts Nutrition Center Tufts, as well as making returns to the Aquarium, Science Museum, and Observatory for topical sessions linked to new or on-going research.

Laura loved these affairs–even if it meant carting the beer in the back of her car (a potential legal liability that Bob Cooke had realized a decade earlier)–and shaming some of our less-social colleagues into paying for it.

At one point, however, I could sense Laura’s growing frustration with the rather unstructured, unplanned, unconventional, and, definitely, unfunded nature of NESW–and my own blissful unconcern about it.

Actually, by 1995, we both were increasingly involved in other activities. Laura, who had left Tech Review for book publishing, turned her considerable energies toward national affairs. The rest is history, with Laura eventually becoming, as we all well know, NASW’s president, where, until her untimely death, she helped shepherd that organization through some of its most vital and trying times. And, my own focus turned even farther beyond New England through the work of the International Science Writers Association (ISWA).

Fortunately, by 1995 also, NESW had such a large and active member base that there many people ready and willing to bring some order to the organization.   An informal group , including Laura and myself, plus Ann Parson and Ellen Shell of BU, Dan Haney of the AP, and Art Clifford of UMass, met in May to discuss NESW’s future.

By late summer, we had created a database of “members,” that is, anyone who had ever attended meetings in the past—and others we felt should have been there. Then, over noodles and rice at a Chinese restaurant in Central Square, a group of us established a schedule of dues and “elected” a NESW Secretariat ( or, rather, one “selected” by those of us at the table that night) consisting of Laura (I think), Seema Kumar ( then with the Whitehead), Ann Parson, Richard Saltus, and Dan Haney. Oddly, I can’t recall if anyone was actually named President, Secretary, or whatever…

A meeting at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge that September marked the first official event of NESW’s “new generation.”   Thereafter, there would be dues, officers, and, with the emergence of the Internet, regular and relevant communication between members.

The core group of NESW “officers” continued to meet—usually at the same Chinese restaurant—throughout the next few years.  At the same time, the core reason for NESW’s existence—up-close and personal meetings with local scientists –continued unabated under the new management. And, not surprisingly, the quality of the science presentations remained as high as in the past.

For example, in 1996, the late comet-and-asteroid expert Brian Marsden of the CfA talked about the dangers of collisions between such objects and Earth; in 1997, the folks at Dragon Software in Watertown demonstrated one of the first (albeit then somewhat crude) voice-recognition systems, a feature that would eventually become standard on all GPS devices and Smartphones; and, in 1998, local climate-change deniers Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon tried to convince us not to worry about global warming.

My direct personal—and recording—involvement with NESW ended in early 2001, when I left the dark and dank Northeast for the sunny and dry Southwest. My last “formal” NESW meeting was in March that year, when, appropriately enough, I went to Children’s Hospital to hear my long-time pal and one-time partner Bob Cooke discuss his new book, “Dr. Folkman’s War, “ together with his eponymous subject, the late Judah Folkman.

Jug wine and cut-rate cheese was served after. It was just the way Bob and I–and NESW– had started nearly a quarter-century before.

Tucson, Arizona
March 2014

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