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The obituary is a strange genre. (I say this having written two.) An obituary typically contains the basic facts of the deceased’s life: where and when they were born; when and sometimes how they died; where they went to school; the names of wives and husbands and children and the names of any other “surviving family members.” An obituary, whether written by a family member or by someone at the newspaper, attempts to narrate a life – who was this person; what did they do; what were they like?

All this makes obituaries quite useful when researching people – “captains of industry” to be sure, but also lesser known players in any field or event. Obituaries help you double-check some basic facts. But they can also give you glimpse of how someone was understood as a historical figure by their contemporaries.

So I’ve been gathering the obituaries for all the characters in my book.

B. F. Skinner’s obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times on this date in 1990. A1 news. “B. F. Skinner, the Champion Of Behaviorism, Is Dead at 86.”

It’s a different story than the one that Skinner told about himself in his three part (!) autobiography. I just finished reading book one, Particulars of My Life. There was far more talk of masturbation than I was prepared for, I will confess – not something The NYT chose to highlight in its 2200-word obit, thank god.

Sidney Pressey’s obituary – totalling less than 100 words – was picked up by the Associated Press and published in several Ohio newspapers. Norman Crowder’s appeared on page 10 of Section 2 of The Chicago Tribune and, notably I think, includes directions on how to get to the family farm for “a memorial celebration, buffet dinner and music.” Skinner had no funeral – “her father’s wish,” according to his daughter.

Audrey Watters


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Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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