Festschriften Honor Exceptional Scientific Careers, Scholarly Influences

TREND-SETTER: Engineer Y.K. Lin's popular festschrift conference became an annual event. A scientist often wears several hats-teacher, mentor, administrator, and researcher. While many prominent awards honor the research role, a festschrift volume uniquely recognizes the many facets of an outstanding and influential scientist. Meaning in German "celebratory writing," a festschrift is a unique publication devoted to the lifelong ideas and influences of an exceptional scholar. EDITOR'S ROLE:

Sep 2, 1996
Ricki Lewis


TREND-SETTER: Engineer Y.K. Lin's popular festschrift conference became an annual event.
A scientist often wears several hats-teacher, mentor, administrator, and researcher. While many prominent awards honor the research role, a festschrift volume uniquely recognizes the many facets of an outstanding and influential scientist. Meaning in German "celebratory writing," a festschrift is a unique publication devoted to the lifelong ideas and influences of an exceptional scholar.


EDITOR'S ROLE: Justine Cullinan notes that festschrift editors separate the "schmoozing" aspects of the meeting from the science.
"The idea behind a festschrift is to honor the teacher," says Justine Cullinan, managing editor of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. A festschrift usually includes a symposium or celebration, followed by publication of a book of essays and papers contributed by the honoree's students and colleagues. Even family members occasionally contribute. Alternatively, an issue of a technical journal may be devoted to the scholar. The celebration usually coincides with a milestone birthday.

A festschrift, for example, honored the 60th birthday of noted astronomer and author Carl Sagan on Oct. 13 and 14, 1995. "We held two full days of symposia, where prominent scholars, including colleagues and students, presented papers," recalls Yervant Terzian, chairman of the department of astronomy at Cornell University, where Sagan is a professor of astronomy. "The proceedings are being published by Cambridge University Press in early 1997," he adds, and are tentatively entitled Astronomy and Space Sciences Symposium.

With only two or three published worldwide per year in any one academic discipline, festschriften are rare, according to Robert Hoffman, an associate professor of psychology at Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y. He organized a festschrift meeting to honor colleague William Dember, a professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, held May 15-18, and another for James J. Jenkins, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, held Jan. 16-18, 1987.

Festschriften are more common today in the humanities and social sciences than they are in the natural sciences, yet the organization of the event and publication tend to be similar in different fields. "There's usually a conference and a banquet where everyone tells stories about the honoree, who then has an opportunity to retrospect. The articles are contributed by colleagues, former students, and people he or she influenced," Hoffman says.


TRIBUTE: Cornell astronomy chairman Yervant Terzian participated in a festschrift for Carl Sagan.
Assembling a festschrift for a scientist is actually easier than doing so for another type of scholar, contends Irving Louis Horowitz, Hannah Arendt Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Rutgers University and editorial chairman and president, emeritus, of Transaction Publishers in New Brunswick, N.J. "The physical and natural sciences are much more disciplined and focused. The social sciences and humanities are more nebulous, with more differences in opinion," he says. Horowitz published a "how-to" article on festshriften in the January 1990 issue of Scholarly Publishing (21[2]:77-83).

Festschriften originated in Germany at the turn of the century, "but there were very, very few published in the United States until the 1930s. It is almost a postwar phenomenon," explains Horowitz. Scientists escaping Hitler's Germany brought the practice to the U.S.

Today, festschriften remain mostly a European phenomenon. "The festschrift idea is not as common in the U.S. as in Europe, but maybe that is because we don't have the extensive academic tradition and history that exists in the old world," says Stephen Lunce, an associate professor of information systems at Texas A&M International University, an associated campus of Texas A&M University in Laredo, Texas.

Lunce helped present the November 1995 festschrift to honor the 65th birthday of Lawrence Schkade, a professor in the department of information systems and management sciences at the University of Texas at Arlington. Schkade is an expert in applying information technology to health care delivery, with a particular interest in organizing organ donation since receiving a heart transplant in 1992. He published an article on this in 1994 (T. Shafer et al., JAMA-Journal of the American Medical Association, 272[20]:1607-13).


HONOREE: At Robert Brent's festschrift, students spoke of the value of a course he taught.
Researchers deserving of a festschrift share certain qualities, says Hoffman. These characteristics include outstanding mentoring skills, profound impact on an academic or clinical department's growth or direction, technical mastery, significant contributions to research and theory, and broad interests. Robert L. Brent, a Distinguished Professor of pediatrics, radiology, and pathology and the Louis and Bess Stein Professor of Pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, exemplifies this combination of characteristics.

Over his 30-year career as chairman of pediatrics, Brent saw the department mushroom from five faculty members to 160, and the number of residents grow from six to 60. He has taught genetics and teratology to more perinatologists than anyone in the U.S., and trained more than 100 postdoctoral research associates, medical students, and visiting faculty. And the media frequently consult him for expertise on breaking stories concerning potential teratogens, such as exposures during Operation Desert Storm and the recent case of radiation poisoning at the National Cancer Institute (M.E. Watanabe, The Scientist, Feb. 5, 1996, page 1).

While many attendees at Brent's festschrift meeting on April 8 referenced his research, one student spoke of the value of his course entitled "Personal Problems of Physicians" and of his standing offer to students to discuss their problems with him. The festschrift will be published in early 1997 as a regular issue of Reproductive Toxicology, according to Anthony Scialli, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University Medical Center and editor-in-chief of the journal.

Festschriften typically honor older scholars. Considering the rarity of women among the ranks of older scientists, women festschrift recipients are most unusual. "The huge crush of women into academia occurred in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, so you wouldn't expect too many of them to have received a festschrift," says Horowitz.

One such woman whom Cullinan recalls is Sarah Ratner, who was honored in September 1983 with a festschrift entitled An Era in New York Biochemistry, published as part of the Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences in honor of Ratner's 80th birthday. As a professor in the department of pharmacology at the New York University Medical Center, Ratner studied amino acid metabolism. But what Cullinan recalls most vividly about the festschrift is a last-minute editorial nightmare, discovering a page lost behind a file cabinet. "As hastily as possible, we got it in and made the deadline," Cullinan says.

Women's representation among the honored is expected to increase in parallel to their increasing numbers in science. "A prelude to receiving a festschrift is to have participated in them for others. And more and more women are participating in festschriften," explains Horowitz.

Festschriften take several forms. Brent's celebration coincided with the establishment of an endowed professorship and naming an auditorium after Brent and his wife. "At the symposium, people from all over the world presented papers that will be published in Reproductive Toxicology. It includes a history of my career, a bibliography, and my portrait," says Brent.

Y.K. Lin's festschrift, entitled Stochastic Structural Dynamics: Progress in Theory and Applications and published in 1988 by ier Applied Science Publishers Ltd. in Essex, U.K., set a trend. The conference tied to the festschrift proved so popular that it became an annual event, the International Conference of Stochastic Structural Dynamics, Lin relates. He is the Charles E. Schmidt Eminent Scholar Chair in Engineering at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. His work predicts how materials will react to the stresses of natural disasters.


GETTING PERSONAL: At a festschrift for biologist Morris Pollard, former students taped comments.
Morris Pollard, a professor, emeritus, of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, recalls an especially nice touch to the events surrounding his festschrift. "A large number of graduate students came and spent the whole morning taping their experiences since they'd left here. A couple of them are presidents of universities, some are very highly ranked in the military. People spoke about virology, prostate cancer, and infectious disease and cancer," he says. Although the students' reminiscences will not be included in the publication, they added a personal note to the celebration. The volume, to be called Seminars in Surgical Oncology, will be issued in 1997 by Wiley-Liss Publishers Inc. in New York.

Some events and their resulting publications are actually festschriften without that designation. Sagan's event, for example, honored a key birthday, brought back colleagues for a symposium, and is being published-yet it isn't called a festschrift. And Richard Rosenblatt, a professor of marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., had a "fest" but not a "schrift." A symposium in his honor held on May 25, 1996, honored his 65th birthday. "The talks ranged from the behavior of white sharks and the physiology of tunas, to symbiosis between fishes and luminous bacteria and molecular genetics," he explains. Because of the wide-ranging topics, Rosenblatt and his colleagues chose not to produce a written volume. "Bringing them together in one volume would have served no useful purpose," he maintains.

Rosenblatt's decision to leave the "schrift" out of his festschrift was one way of handling a key challenge in this unusual genre-incorporating many diverse topics under a single umbrella. Carl Sagan's volume, for example, has sections on planetary exploration; life in the cosmos; science education; and science, environment, and public policy.

A festschrift planner usually contacts contributors, then finds a publisher. But publishers often shy away from such diverse volumes. "Most university presses discourage submission of festschriften, because such works frequently have little unity of content," and therefore a limited market, says Cullinan.

There was no problem finding a publisher for William Dember's festschrift volume, which will be entitled Psychology Beyond the Threshold. The American Psychological Association not only sponsored Dember's celebration, but also provided guidelines for producing the publication. These include a succinct definition: "Chapters or sections describe what others have done with a kernel of the honoree's thought, showing the influence of ideas from various vantage points and how these influences intersect."

An editor ties together submissions to a festschrift, "separating the schmoozing reminiscences from the work itself," Cullinan says, so that the articles are serious science. Festschriften that are special issues of journals typically run a sentence or two honoring the person on the introductory pages of each entry. The task of connecting all the pieces may fall to a professional editor, such as Cullinan, or to a scientist-editor, depending upon the publisher of the work.

Coordinating a festschrift is an enormous undertaking, combining the chores of conference planning and publishing proceedings. The process takes one to three years. "You need at least three to four months to line up key people to participate, starting by generating a mailing list of all who worked or published with the person. You then decide a time and place, then start looking for funding and for a publisher," notes Hoffman.

It saves time to make specific assignments for topics, and to provide style sheets, recommended article lengths, and deadlines, adds Greg Wilkinson, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Liverpool. Wilkinson published an article on writing festschriften in the British Medical Journal (299:612-4, 1989). In the paper, he recounted his experiences in organizing a festschrift volume, entitled The Scope of Epidemiological Psychiatry, published in 1989 by Routledge Ltd. of London in honor of colleague Michael Shepherd, a professor of epidemiological psychiatry at the university. Wilkinson gave contributors a deadline of nine months to turn in their articles. A further six months were used for Wilkinson to request changes and deliver the manuscript to the publisher. Because of all the planning and correspondence required, festschriften are rarely surprises.


HEART OF THE MATTER: Lawrence Schkade calls students' fond memories of an honoree "the pinnacle of acheivement for a professor."
How does it feel to receive a festschrift? Honorees report embarrassment, followed by great joy at seeing old friends. "It was very significant to me that the primary impetus for the festschrift came from students and former students," says Schkade. "They were the crucial nexus between my scholarly, teaching and administrative activities. Further, to know that one's students and peers feel that one's career work is noteworthy and remarkable is the pinnacle of achievement for a researcher and professor."

A leather-bound journal honoring a scientist's lifelong achievements may seem antiquated in this age of electronic communication, but it may persist, in some form, because of its sheer elegance. "Pomp and celebration will always go on, as it has since the Greeks were at the Parthenon. Yes, the festschrift will survive, but the form of delivery may change," says Horowitz.

Adds Cullinan: "The festschrift may be an idea whose time has passed, but it is still a lovely idea. There is still room for the human touch in scientific writing."


Ricki Lewis, a freelance science writer based in Scotia, N.Y., is the author of several biology textbooks. She is online at 76715.3517@compuserve.com