Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist who in the 70s invented a propulsion system to help keep satellites from straying out of their orbits like distracted puppies, died on Wednesday at the age of 88. Brill's system became the industry standard for satellites, and her contribution to the rocket science racket proved so valuable that President Obama presented her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011. If you were tasked with writing Brill's obituary, then, you'd probably want to start with her litany of scientific innovations, wouldn't you? Wrong! You'd rhapsodize about her beef stroganoff because even rocket scientist wives and mothers are still only as important as their best culinary accomplishments.
That was the logic of New York Times obit scribbler Douglas Martin, who made the unfortunate mistake in Brill's Saturday obituary of starting of the litany of Brill's achievements like this:
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.
Oh yes, by the way, Number One Mom Yvonne Brill, Preparer of Divine Beef Stroganoff, Cleaner of Messy Diapers, also invented a little system that helped make satellites work. It's nothing, really, just the industry standard.
The Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan was none too happy about Martin's choice of humanizing detail, and Brill's obit was swiftly purged of its beef stroganoff reference so that her professional accomplishments could stand out, front and center. However, Buzzfeed's Shani O. Hilton managed to screen grab the original obit, as well as the cascade of dismayed Twitter reactions:
Dear NYT, just in case you're prewriting obits of obscure book critics, everybody says I make delicious chocolate chip cookies.— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 30, 2013
Mad at that NYT rocket scientist obit because A) i mean COME on & B) now I am hungry for beef stroganoff.— Elena Passarello (@elenavox) March 30, 2013
Engineer instrumental in developing propulsion systems but hey she was a woman so look her beef stroganoff was her real achievement.— Sabine Wolff (@sabinewolff) March 30, 2013
It should go without saying, but the problem with the original obituary is that a male scientist would never — NEVER — be hailed as a "the world's best dad" before being hailed as an important scientific innovator.