Flanagan's death falls only a few months after that of the man with whom he was long professionally linked, Gerard Piel, Scientific American's former publisher and chairman. Flanagan and Piel, along with a small group of investors, purchased the magazine in 1947 and changed it from a rather quirky mix of science, inventions and mechanical hobbycraft into the world's premier voice of authoritative, intelligent science coverage. Both retired from active involvement with the magazine in the mid-1980s, when they sold it to its current owners.
Their partnership was an outgrowth of working together at Life magazine in the 1940s; Flanagan succeeded Piel as that magazine's Science editor. Scientific American came to embody the enthusiasm and vision that those two men had for what a modern science magazine could be.
Of course, not everyone appreciated Flanagan and Piel's Scientific American right off the bat. In the months after the magazine's May 1948 debut, it published a modest number of congratulatory letters, but also one that began, "Sirs: I have been trying to read the May issue of your magazine. Man, oh man. You have ruined the finest shop and hobby magazine in the world. Gone high-brow...."
At Scientific American, Flanagan edited with a clear philosophy that "Science is what scientists do," which lent the magazine its breadth of interests in all areas of research endeavor. Perhaps the best testament to the quality of his work (it surely gave Flanagan great pleasure) was a quote that has been attributed to the poet Robert Frost: "There are only two really great literary magazines in the United States. First is The New Yorker. The more brilliant of the two is Scientific American. It's come up with a great editorship. I'd rather read the advertisements in Scientific American than most of the literature written elsewhere."
In 1999, Flanagan was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame.
Magazine editors were once a fairly anonymous breed, not that you would know it by the current self-promoting crop (and believe me, I put myself in that company). Inspect the 37 years of issues that Dennis Flanagan edited and you will look in vain for his byline. Flanagan never openly wrote a single article for his own publication. Yet, his impeccable editorial judgment informed every line in those issues with clarity and intelligence.
Let me rectify the absence of Flanagan's byline, if only posthumously. Late in November, Flanagan sent me a brief letter--the last communication I ever had with him--explaining that he had recently related this anecdote to his wife Barbara and she had encouraged him to write it up for us.
HOW SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN GOT ITS NEW NAME
By Dennis Flanagan
Readers of Scientific American know that it got its name in 1845, because it says in the magazine "SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN established 1845." But almost no one knows that it had to be renamed soon after the new science magazine was invented by two Life magazine writers, Gerard Piel and myself. At that time Piel was seeking funding for a magazine that was to be titled The Sciences.
Then an interesting thing happened. The old Scientific American had a department titled "Telescoptics." Written by Albert G. Ingalls, it was addressed to the interests of a small but passionate group of people who enjoyed making their own astronomical telescopes. Ingalls called them TN's, or telescope nuts, and he kept in close touch with many off them by means of legendary postal cards always signed "Doc." (Although he was enormously well-informed about telescope-making, he was not a Ph.D.)
Now, one of the receivers of Ingalls's cards was my stepfather, Lawrence Braymer. A commercial artist by trade, he too was a telescope nut. (Later he became a professional telescope-maker, making a well-known small telescope named Questar.) One day Braymer received a card from Ingalls bearing sad news: Scientific American was going out of business!
The card arrived in the same period when Piel was raising money to start the new magazine titled The Sciences. When I told him the news, we looked at each other with the same thought. Instead of starting a new science magazine titled The Sciences, why didn't we start a new magazine with the old title Scientific American? We liked the title for itself, and although the magazine was then in sad shape, it had seen great days and would give us a ready-made history. (Later our General Manager, Donald H. Miller, Jr., discovered that it had another great asset: It had office space and a telephone number, both of which were hard to come by in the postwar years.)
Piel had already had some success in raising money for The Sciences, and we now asked our investors if they would consider buying and rejuvenating an old magazine instead of starting a new one. They liked the idea, and the first issue of the new Scientific American appeared in May, 1948.
(Postscript: The only department of the old magazine we retained in the new one was "Telescoptics." We renamed it "The Amateur Telescope Maker," and Ingalls continued writing it for some years.)
As an author, Flanagan is best remembered for his book Flanagan's Version, a wide-ranging rumination on science that combines exposition, narrative and anecdote, and that beautifully captures his genial astonishment at the natural world and at researchers' ingenuity in plumbing it.
Flanagan's friends and coworkers have many stories about him. My own contacts with him were too brief to qualify me for their company, but shortly after I was named editor in chief, Flanagan and I had lunch at the Century Club, where he was a member. Imagine my apprehension as I hesitantly discussed my plans for introducing some modernizing changes to the magazine; I was not only presuming to talk editing with a legend of the profession but also implicitly suggesting that his beautiful baby needed a nose job. Flanagan was tremendously encouraging, however, and said that he welcomed any changes that would help to keep the magazine respected and vital. At one point, I confessed that it was intimidating to take the reins of an institution so venerable as Scientific American when I was only 35 years old. Flanagan smiled and replied, "You must remember, I was only 27 when I did it."
Perhaps the most famous story about Flanagan, one immortalized in his book, tells of the time he ran into film critic Pauline Kael at a luncheon and reproached her for boasting that she knew nothing of science. Kael reportedly replied, "Oh, you're a Renaissance hack!"
It was a genial insult, and I had a good laugh," Flanagan wrote. "Actually I like the idea of being a Renaissance hack. If tombstones were still in style, I would want to have the two words chiseled right under my name. In an age of specialization people are proud to be able to do one thing well, but if that is all they know about, they are missing out on much else life has to offer."
Flanagan never missed a thing.