Although Piel never formally studied science--he graduated from Harvard magna cum laude as a history major--his influence over science literacy worldwide cannot be overstated. For six years in the 1940s he worked as the science editor at Life magazine, reaching an audience of millions. Then in 1947 he, fellow journalists Dennis Flanagan and Donald H. Miller, and a group of investors purchased Scientific American. That already venerable magazine had published accounts of inventions and discoveries since 1845, but its new owners had more ambitious plans.
Piel as publisher, Flanagan as editor and Miller as general manager remade the magazine into a more sophisticated, authoritative monthly in which the feature articles were routinely written by experts in those subjects, yet were intended for an educated general public instead of a purely professional one. This new formula for Scientific American proved hugely successful, especially in what became the space race?era of international technological competitiveness, and Piel saw the magazine's readership grow through the 1970s.
Gerard Piel believed strongly that the entire world should participate and share in the benefits of scientific enterprise. For that reason, he aggressively sought partners outside the U.S. to publish Scientific American in other countries and languages. Thanks in part to his initiative, editions of Scientific American are today published in 18 nations. As publisher of Scientific American, Piel became a roving ambassador of good will for science, and he sometimes tapped other staffers of the magazine to join him: longtime employees fondly remember times in the late 1970s when Piel brought the entire staff with him on trips through the then-Soviet Union and China.
For Piel, scientific reason also deserved to be a beacon for political reform and good governance. Throughout the 1970s, for example, the magazine published a string of articles arguing for international nuclear disarmament and a reassessment of the politics of mutually assured destruction.
In 1984 Piel stepped away from his day-to-day duties as publisher and assumed the role of chairman of Scientific American, which he continued to hold for another decade. Nevertheless, he continued to write and speak about science. During this time he authored The Age of Science: What Scientists Learned in the 20th Century (2001) and Only One World (1992) and co-edited The World of Rene Dubos: A Collection of His Writings (1990). (These books joined his earlier works, Science in the Cause of Man (1962) and The Acceleration of History (1972).)
In addition, Piel held many other positions of note throughout his career, including president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and membership on the boards of the American Museum of Natural History, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and the Mayo Clinic.
Those of us who had the fortune to have known or met Gerard Piel are saddened now to have lost him. He was a landmark figure in journalistic letters, and he directly promoted the growth of science as much as any one person could.