In Memoriam – July 2021

Frances Kohler
27 December 1938–20 February 2021

by Robert Kohler

Frances Kohler, sometime in the 1990s, photograph courtesy Robert Kohler

Frances Coulborn Kohler passed away this past February after a gradual decline. She was the first of five children born to Rushton Coulborn and Helen McIntosh Coulborn, who taught comparative history and English literature respectively at Atlanta University, in Atlanta, Georgia. We met and married in 1958 while she was a student at Wellesley College from where she graduated in 1960 with a BA in classical studies. She went on to complete a PhD in comparative literature from Harvard (1973), while simultaneously raising a young family of two boys. Our family moved to Philadelphia in 1973, when I was appointed assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History and Sociology of Science, newly reconstituted under the leadership of Arnold Thackray.

After several uncertain years of teaching classics at Penn (University of Pennsylvania) and Haverford College, Frances serendipitously entered into what was to be her life’s work, for which she had a singular gift: in literary editing and publication. From 1978-1979 Thackray was engaged in transferring the Isis editorship from the Smithsonian Institution to Penn, and in desperate need of expert help in editing manuscripts and getting issues ready for the printer. He approached me, who being no expert, was aghast at my chairman’s request. Frances, just then at a dead end in her academic prospects, reminded me that she was an excellent editor, and why didn’t Arnold talk to her? So it was that from a modest start as emergency copy editor, Frances quickly became full time assistant to the editor, and then managing editor and the creator and head of the expanding publications office of the History of Science Society, where she worked until 1991.

Frances’s special gift as textual editor was her ability to grasp the essential point of what authors were trying to say, and to show them how they could say it more precisely and clearly, without ever interjecting what she herself might do with their subjects. The opportunity to edit a premier scholarly journal freed her, for the first time, to apply and develop that gift in a wide range of topics. She loved to learn and was a quick learner. As an editor she was by universal assent the best—as I well knew from her editing of my own work (I never argued: she was always right.) Some Isis authors might have balked, but they almost always ended in gratitude.

Frances’s work in the publications office went well beyond textual editing, however, to encompass the entire process of getting journal issues to the printer: ordering the growing tide of manuscripts, finding appropriate and attractive illustrations, and designing and laying out the final product. She loved the whole process, especially the final layout. She had an eye for graphic design—tasteful, elegant, never showy—and was known and respected by all for the reliably high quality of everything to which she put her hand.

And that “everything” went beyond scholarly publications. HSS was at the time transforming itself from a small and largely volunteer organization focused on Isis, to one that was more fully professional in scope and organization. And in this expansion the Isis Publications Office was an epicenter of activity: with the revival of Osiris, in 1985, enlarging and greatly improving the HSS Newsletter, as well as a range of social activities in news, public relations, fund-raising, and member services—each of which required cogent and good-looking illustrated text. Arnold was fruitful, even profligate, in thinking up new things to do; and Frances, his creative and capable partner, in her calm and orderly way made them happen. Her work as head of the publications office thus came to include much that might have been done in an office of executive secretary but, as yet, was not. The variety suited her. After the office of executive secretary was created in 1987, and the editorship relocated from Penn in 1989, Frances moved with Arnold to build the publications side of the then Chemical Heritage Foundation (now Science History Institute) in the historical district of Philadelphia.

Frances’s exceptional skill in building and managing a complex institution was apparent to all in the quality of what was produced, and in her open participation in HSS activities. Less visible, though no less significant, was her dedication to nurturing human relations among her half dozen or so assistants—the “invisible technicians” who behind the scenes in any organization keep things running. To her staff—most of them young, and many of them women—Frances was not just a boss but a mentor and role model of a professional woman and working wife and mother, of whom there were then still precious few in academia. She went out of her way to encourage younger women to pursue their own life paths, and to give them the know-how and opportunities to explore and navigate the difficult first steps into academic and other careers. Work and life, for Frances, were always one. She is remembered with affection by all she served so willingly and well.

Robert Kohler is professor emeritus of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

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