The New York Times fails miserably in its obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill

Last Wednesday, acclaimed rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died. To honor her, the New York Times' obituary opened by remarking on her "mean beef stroganoff."

[Ed.: The obituary has since been changed with no mention of revision. See below for a comparison between the edited and original versions] Brill is a big deal in the world of rocket science. In the 1940s, she was quite possibly the only woman in the United States doing work in the field. In the 1970s, she developed and patented the electrothermal hydrazine thruster – a rocket propulsion system used by communication satellites to maintain a geosynchronous orbit around Earth. Brill's EHT remains an industry standard to this day, and earned her the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011. (Above, Brill is pictured receiving her award from President Obama.)

All of this is, of course, mentioned in The New York Times' obit, which ran yesterday. Tragically, it is mentioned only after this spectacularly awful lede:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

The blowback has been considerable. Since its publication yesterday, the obituary has attracted a firestorm of remonstration on Twitter. A small sampling of tweets captures the air of incredulity:

Not surprisingly, many have managed to miss the obit's sexist connotations entirely. (This person chalks the piece's gaffe up to "a fairly innocent narrative device.") These people would do well to acquaint themselves with the Finkbeiner Test – a rubric (created by science writer Christie Aschwanden and named in honor of her colleague Ann Finkbeiner) for measuring gender bias in stories about women in science. You can read Aschwanden's whole essay (which includes the story of why it's named after Finkbeiner) here, and its support from the Columbia Journalism Review here, but the test boils down to the following:

To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

  • The fact that she's a woman
  • Her husband's job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she's such a role model for other women
  • How she's "the first woman to..."

That's a rigorous metric, to be sure, and one that many (if not most) stories about women in science most likely fail. Should all these stories be cast aside? Hardly. As one person notes in the comments of Aschwanden's essay, stories that fail the test remain "important for building solidarity and highlighting the particular issues women face. They just shouldn't be the default narrative, or the prevalent one, and there are better people than others to be writing those (like the women themselves)."

Brill obviously didn't write her obituary. A man by the name of Douglas Martin did. It does bear mentioning, however, that Brill herself might have failed the Finkbeiner test, had she been asked to prepare it on her own behalf. Here is an excerpt from a speech Brill administered in 1999, at her induction into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame (excerpted from the video featured here):

My professional career began in 1945 in the aircraft industry, but in 1946 shifted into the new field of rockets. During the next 20 years I worked on rocket ramjet turbojet turbofan engines, and the evaluation of new rocket propellants as required by my location, which in those days followed my husband's best career opportunities rather than mine.

Does the fact that it is Brill who is speaking make it okay for her to mention her husband's career while receiving an award for being an influential woman in technology? Probably. A sense of solidarity, the nature of sexism in the 1940s, and her role as an inspiration to women and girls in science and technology also seem appropriate, given the context of her speech. There's room for discussion here, obviously, and it's one I hope we can have below in the comments – but you'll notice the first thing out of Brill's mouth was still her professional career in aerospace, not her cooking.

By front-loading the piece with Brill's culinary skills and parental accomplishments, the gist of the piece shifts from "this woman was a great rocket scientist" to "great mom and dutiful wife made killer stroganoff. Also, she was a rocket scientist." Imagine the latter motif being used to characterize a male scientist, and you're beginning to scratch the surface of why people have taken umbrage at the NYT's handling of Brill's passing.

Last night, NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan posted the following to her Twitter account [Ed.: Sullivan has posted her own take on the obit and the reactions it incited on The New York Times' Public Editor's Journal]:

(NB: The page she links to is the CJR's breakdown of the Finkbeiner Test.) A short while later, the obituary's lede (and much of the rest of the piece) was changed, without any mention of revision. It now reads as follows:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

Below, you will find the original version, followed by the (minorly) edited version that now appears without mention of revision on the NYT's website. See also: NewsDiffs, which shows the edits made to the original version with clearly labeled annotations.

Original

Yvonne Brill, a Pioneering Rocket Scientist, Dies at 88

By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: March 30, 2013

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

The system became the industry standard, and it was the achievement President Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Her devotion to family also won notice. In 1980, Harper’s Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave her their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.

Mrs. Brill — she preferred to be called Mrs., her son said — is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.

It was a distinction she earned in the face of obstacles, beginning when the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend.

“You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted,” she once said.

Mrs. Brill’s development of a more efficient rocket thruster to keep orbiting satellites in place allowed satellites to carry less fuel and more equipment and to stay in space longer. The thrusters have the delicate task of maneuvering a weightless satellite that can tip the scales at up to 5,000 pounds on Earth.

Mrs. Brill contributed to the propulsion systems of Tiros, the first weather satellite; Nova, a series of rocket designs that were used in American moon missions; the Atmosphere Explorer, the first upper-atmosphere satellite; and the Mars Observer, which in 1992 almost entered a Mars orbit before losing communication with Earth.

From 1981 to 1983, Mrs. Brill worked for NASA developing the rocket motor for the space shuttle. In a statement after Mrs. Brill’s death, Michael Griffin, president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, praised her as “a pioneering spirit” who coupled “a clear vision of what the future of an entire area of systems should be with the ingenuity and genius necessary to make that vision a reality.”

Yvonne Madelaine Claeys was born on Dec. 30, 1924, in St. Vital, a suburb of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her parents had separately immigrated from Flanders, in Belgium. Her father was a carpenter.

After the University of Manitoba barred her from the engineering program, she studied mathematics and chemistry instead and graduated at the top of her class. Her lack of an engineering degree did not prevent her from getting a job with Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Nobody had the right degrees back then, so it didn’t matter,” she told The Star-Ledger of Newark in 2010. “I didn’t have engineering, but the engineers didn’t have the chemistry and math.”

She never received a professional engineer’s license, but did pick up a master’s in chemistry at the University of Southern California while working as a saleswoman for a chemical company. Afterward she went to work for Douglas, whose satellite project became the foundation of the RAND Corporation, an early research center. It was at RAND that she worked on the first American satellite designs, remaining there for three years. While still peddling chemicals, she met William Franklin Brill, a research chemist, at a talk by Linus Pauling, who would win one of his Nobel Prizes in chemistry. At one point Mr. Brill told her about his problems making a particular chemical in his lab. She replied that she could sell it to him by the pound at a very low price. Soon, the couple went square-dancing, only to discover that they both hated it. They found other interests, and married in 1951. He died in 2010.

They moved to Connecticut in 1952 when Mr. Brill got a job there. She followed him again when he later got a job in New Jersey. She did not mind the moves, her son Matthew said. She would say, “Good husbands are harder to find than good jobs.”

Still, she managed to find jobs that allowed her to continue to work on rockets. One was at Wright Aeronautical in New Jersey. She left the company in 1958, however, to care for her young children, keeping her hand in the field by working part-time as a consultant for the FMC Corporation. In 1966, she went back to work full time, taking a job at RCA’s rocket subsidiary. Soon she doing the work that won international acclaim.

Mrs. Brill patented her propulsion system for satellites in 1972, and the first communications satellite using it was launched in 1983. It is still being used by satellites that handle worldwide phone service, long-range television broadcasts and other tasks.

Part of Mrs. Brill’s rationale for going into rocket engineering was that virtually no other women were doing so. “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person,” she said in a 1990 interview.

Throughout her career Mrs. Brill encouraged women to become engineers and scientists, starting by telling high school girls to stick with math. In her last week of life, she was still writing letters recommending eminent women in engineering for professional awards.

Her own many awards include the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001 and top honors from several major engineering societies.

Matthew Brill said his mother died of complications of breast cancer. She lived in Skillman, N.J. Mrs. Brill is also survived by another son, Joseph; a daughter, Naomi Brill; and four grandchildren.

In 2010, when Mrs. Brill was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, The Washington Post began its article about the event by lauding two other honorees, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver, the inventors of Post-its. The article went on to suggest that it took two men to create an adhesive stationery but only one woman to figure out how to keep satellites in place.

Revised

Yvonne Brill, a Pioneering Rocket Scientist, Dies at 88

By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: March 30, 2013

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

The system became the industry standard, and it was the achievement President Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Her personal and professional balancing act also won notice. In 1980, Harper’s Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave her their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.

Mrs. Brill — she preferred to be called Mrs., her son said — is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.

It was a distinction she earned in the face of obstacles, beginning when the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend.

“You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted,” she once said.

Mrs. Brill’s development of a more efficient rocket thruster to keep orbiting satellites in place allowed satellites to carry less fuel and more equipment and to stay in space longer. The thrusters have the delicate task of maneuvering a weightless satellite that can tip the scales at up to 5,000 pounds on Earth.

Mrs. Brill contributed to the propulsion systems of Tiros, the first weather satellite; Nova, a series of rocket designs that were used in American moon missions; the Atmosphere Explorer, the first upper-atmosphere satellite; and the Mars Observer, which in 1992 almost entered a Mars orbit before losing communication with Earth.

From 1981 to 1983, Mrs. Brill worked for NASA developing the rocket motor for the space shuttle. In a statement after Mrs. Brill’s death, Michael Griffin, president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, praised her as “a pioneering spirit” who coupled “a clear vision of what the future of an entire area of systems should be with the ingenuity and genius necessary to make that vision a reality.”

Yvonne Madelaine Claeys was born on Dec. 30, 1924, in St. Vital, a suburb of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her parents had separately immigrated from Flanders, in Belgium. Her father was a carpenter.

After the University of Manitoba barred her from the engineering program, she studied mathematics and chemistry instead and graduated at the top of her class. Her lack of an engineering degree did not prevent her from getting a job with Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Nobody had the right degrees back then, so it didn’t matter,” she told The Star-Ledger of Newark in 2010. “I didn’t have engineering, but the engineers didn’t have the chemistry and math.”

She never received a professional engineer’s license, but did pick up a master’s in chemistry at the University of Southern California while working as a saleswoman for a chemical company. Afterward she went to work for Douglas, whose satellite project became the foundation of the RAND Corporation, an early research center. It was at RAND that she worked on the first American satellite designs, remaining there for three years. While still peddling chemicals, she met William Franklin Brill, a research chemist, at a talk by Linus Pauling, who would win one of his Nobel Prizes in chemistry. At one point Mr. Brill told her about his problems making a particular chemical in his lab. She replied that she could sell it to him by the pound at a very low price. Soon, the couple went square-dancing, only to discover that they both hated it. They found other interests, and married in 1951. He died in 2010.

They moved to Connecticut in 1952 when Mr. Brill got a job there. She followed him again when he later got a job in New Jersey. She did not mind the moves, her son Matthew said. She would say, “Good husbands are harder to find than good jobs.”

Still, she managed to find jobs that allowed her to continue to work on rockets. One was at Wright Aeronautical in New Jersey. She left the company in 1958, however, to care for her young children, keeping her hand in the field by working part-time as a consultant for the FMC Corporation. In 1966, she went back to work full time, taking a job at RCA’s rocket subsidiary. Soon she doing the work that won international acclaim.

Mrs. Brill patented her propulsion system for satellites in 1972, and the first communications satellite using it was launched in 1983. It is still being used by satellites that handle worldwide phone service, long-range television broadcasts and other tasks.

Part of Mrs. Brill’s rationale for going into rocket engineering was that virtually no other women were doing so. “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person,” she said in a 1990 interview.

Throughout her career Mrs. Brill encouraged women to become engineers and scientists, starting by telling high school girls to stick with math. In her last week of life, she was still writing letters recommending eminent women in engineering for professional awards.

Her own many awards include the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001 and top honors from several major engineering societies.

Matthew Brill said his mother died of complications of breast cancer. She lived in Skillman, N.J. Mrs. Brill is also survived by another son, Joseph; a daughter, Naomi Brill; and four grandchildren.

In 2010, when Mrs. Brill was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, The Washington Post began its article about the event by lauding two other honorees, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver, the inventors of Post-its. The article went on to suggest that it took two men to create an adhesive stationery but only one woman to figure out how to keep satellites in place.