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Magazine Editor Dennis Flanagan Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page B07

Dennis Flanagan, 85, who died of prostate cancer Jan. 14 at his home in New York, was a major force behind the revival of Scientific American. His editing and puckish humor made him a celebrated figure in the magazine trade.

Previously science editor at Life, Mr. Flanagan arrived at the venerable though languishing Scientific American in 1947. Circulation had slumped to 40,000.


Dennis Flanagan helped revive Scientific American and recruit such writers as James D. Watson, Linus Pauling and Albert Einstein. (Family Photo)

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For some time, Mr. Flanagan had discussed with colleagues the possibilities of a new, atomic-age science periodical for a general readership. He and two friends, including former Life colleague Gerard Piel, bought and overhauled Scientific American.

"It had office space and a telephone number, both of which were hard to come by in the postwar years," Mr. Flanagan wrote.

With Mr. Flanagan as editor and Piel as publisher, they recruited as contributing writers Hans Bethe, James D. Watson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling and Albert Einstein. Mr. Flanagan, who had no formal science training, edited boldly to transform the jargon into lay language.

He hired puzzle columnist Martin Gardner and physicist-book reviewer Philip Morrison, each of whom attracted wide attention.

Mr. Flanagan viewed the sciences as a form of the humanities and offered a broad range of articles. His guiding principle was, "Science is what scientists do, not what nonscientists think they do or ought to be doing." Preferring an abbreviated Dutch translation, he had the phrase emblazoned on a banner in his office: "Wetenschap is wat wetenschappers doen."

According to one report, the magazine became so flush with advertising that it ran more automobile ads than any other monthly. Its circulation when Mr. Flanagan retired in 1984 was more than 600,000, exceeding Harper's and Fortune.

He was elected to the American Society of Magazine Editors' hall of fame in 1999.

Richard Dennis Flanagan was born July 22, 1919, in New York. His father, a magazine illustrator, was known for rendering Sax Rohmer's famed Asian villain, Dr. Fu Manchu.

Mr. Flanagan attended the University of Michigan and left just shy a credit. To find work during wartime -- profound deafness exempted him from military service -- he compiled a résumé he titled "What Dennis Flanagan Can Do For You."

He once described it:

"It was a pack of lies, bullets followed by statements such as 'Dennis Flanagan has edited a city newspaper' (the Michigan Daily one night a week in my junior year) and 'Dennis Flanagan has written prizewinning fiction' ($35 for a freshman short story). For the final bullet I had an inspiration: 'Dennis Flanagan can run the 440 in 52.5 seconds, or will wrestle anyone in the crowd for five dollars.' (This last I believe I stole from Groucho.)"

His offer to wrestle, he was convinced, helped him win a job as office boy at Life in 1941. Working his way into the editorial departments, he wrote about sports and contributed picture captions for the magazine's notable war photography. He succeeded Piel as science editor at Life and covered such stories as the dropping of atomic bombs over Japan.

To start their version of Scientific American, he, Piel and future general manager Donald H. Miller Jr. found financial backing from Sears heir Lessing J. Rosenwald and publisher John Hay Whitney.

Early on, the three published important stories about the transistor, as well as about nuclear armaments and proliferation. Mr. Flanagan's liberal leanings were sometimes said to influence stories with political overtones, notably on nuclear weapons and relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

During his tenure, Mr. Flanagan received a barrage of unsolicited articles, and so he crafted seemingly polite form letters to serve his needs. One read: "My colleagues and I have now spent some time with your article on [what Einstein got wrong]. Regretfully, we have come to the conclusion that it is not suited to our current needs. The reason is simply that we have such an enormous territory of science and medicine to cover that at any one time we have before us a large number of possibilities for good articles."

In 1984, Piel bought out Mr. Flanagan's share in the magazine and within a few years sold Scientific American to a German publishing conglomerate. Mr. Flanagan professed strong feelings about what he saw as the more-commercial aspects of the journal ever since.

He wrote an acclaimed book, "Flanagan's Version: A Spectator's Guide to Science on the Eve of the 21st Century" (1988), in which he described meeting the acerbic film critic Pauline Kael at a luncheon talk. During the ensuing, sometimes unpleasant conversation, she referred to him using a "genial insult" he later said would make a fine epitaph: "Renaissance hack."

His marriage to Geraldine Lux ended in divorce. His second wife, Ellen Raskin, a Newbery Medal-winning author and illustrator, died in 1984.

Survivors include his wife of five years, Barbara Williams Flanagan, an editor and literary agent, of New York; two children from his first marriage, Cara Flanagan-Jones of Bonar Bridge, Scotland, John G. Flanagan of Weston, Mass.; two stepdaughters, Susan Moore of Far Hills, N.J., and Julia Williams of New York; and four grandchildren.


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