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The Scientific Club: By invitation only
by Paige Pearcy
outtakes photo by patrick barron/daily
__ __ __onthe record
V hen I was handed the list, it had a
tinge of holiness to it - University
holiness, if that exists. The names
r ,ed from past and present University
p: idents to various professors with named
pi essorships or deanships or both - the top
so tars on campus.
hen I was told membership was controlled
by iow many people can fit into a house, and
tl- only rule was there were no rules. I was
in 'gued. What was this seemingly elitist
ur sown group of faculty members, why were
th calling themselves the Scientific Club?
tudents probably haven't heard of it. Fac-
ul members probably haven't heard of it.
Oi y those who are in the Scientific Club know
about it. But it isn't a secret society.
It's directed at being quiet, but not secre-
tive. It's not secretive at all," Scientific Club
member Charles Eisendrath, director of the
Knight-Wallace fellows program at the Uni-
Once a month during the academic year,
a group of about 15 faculty members in the
Scientific Club meet for dinner. They discuss
anything they want, and they learn from
"It's kind of like a salon in the tradition of
18th century French notion of getting people
of intellectual curiosity together for a good
meal, conversation and for entertainment,"
Sc ntific Club member David Featherman,
pr fessor emeritus of sociology, said.
These 15 or so people are a part of the 42
current members of the Scientific Club - a
group comprised of senior faculty from differ-
ent walks of the University.
But how does a faculty member become a
member of this group? Well, they won't know
intil they're in.
Joining the club
Wh- "You can't just say you want to join.You have
to be elected."
"It's an elected society," Howard Markel, a
history of medicine professor and club mem-
At the end of each academic year, the mem-
bers begin an election process to decide new
members. During this process, a member must
nominate someone before the club, followed by
a discussion about the nominee.
"We take nominations every year, but some
years we don't necessarily act on them," Markel
said. "Or there may be a slow year and nobody
-dominates anybody, so it's not every year a new
member comes, but it is a good idea if you want
to keep something going."
Resumes are passed around and the club
votes on whether or not the nominee is a
good candidate. Once a person is selected and
approved, two people who know that professor
-approach them and ask them to be a member.
Kenneth Warner, a professor of public
health and former dean of the School of Public
Health, went to ask a new member to join ear-
lier this year.
"He did not know about the club, which I
think is the norm," Warner said. "I think most
people probably don't know about it, which
is interesting because this thing ... really has
some history to it."
Most of the members had never known
about the club until they were asked to join.
"It used to meet in people's home under the
presumption that the nonmember's spouse,
usually a woman, would prepare the meal and
then disappear while the members would hold
fort," Featherman said. "Forty is about what
could be expected to fit in anybody's home, but
that would assume that everyone would show
Participation has changed over time, but
membership stays between 30 and 40.
Members don't have to be current profes-
sors though. The oldest member of the club,
John Reed, is 94-years-young and an emeri-
tus professor of law. Reed said overtime he's
experienced a variety of presentations that he's
"We've had quite a variety of presentations
as you would suppose. We've got scientists and
artists and historians," Reed said. "Everything
from methodology to substance."
This year, Reed gave his first presentation to
the club in 1oyears.
"He gave one of the liveliest and sprightli-
est and most spirited presentations I had heard
in a very long time," Eisendrath said. "It was
about why there are so few trials. He's a law-
yer, and it was really interesting and everybody
had the same reaction 'Oh! Oh my god, I didn't
The new members are asked to join at the
annual banquet, which takes the place of the
last meeting of the year in May and is a longer,
generally catered meeting. It is the only meet-
ing that spouses of members are invited to
The Scientific Club began in 1883 and was
founded by former Physiology Prof. Henry
Sewall and former Chemistry Prof. John Lang-
ley as a branching off from the defunct Ann
Arbor Scientific Association. Sewall and Lang-
ley invited 12 other male University professors
- all of whom were affiliated with different
sciences - to join. They began to hold monthly
meetings where there was a presentation and
the men discussed anything they pleased over
food and smoking.
The club had no rules and still holds true to
that. There are no rituals and no ceremonies.
Most of the members were affiliated with the
natural sciences when the club started, but that
changed over time.
"Now, it consists of a whole spectrum really
of faculties across the schools and colleges,"
Featherman said. "If you use that as a map of
intellectual spectrum, there wouldbe someone
from almost anywhere you can imagine from
And he's right. The current membership has
faculty from every school at the University.
Markel said the initial make-up of the club
has changed with time as well.
"There was a little bit of gendering to it in
the olden days that fortunately has been cor-
rected," Markel said. "It used to be that gentle-
men with mutton chop whiskers, I imagine,
and moustaches retired from the dining room
to smoke cigars and drink brandy and all that
nonsense. It's an equal opportunity club now,
thankfully, but all these old clubs that's how
Women were invited to join in 1977 and the
smoking stopped, but the monthly meetings in
the host's home still persist.
A monthly dinner
"We get to know each other better, and we
get to know about some very interesting things
that we wouldn't otherwise know about,"
Once a month, the club is generally invited
to meet at a house - though sometimes it is at a
restaurant or a place on campus, so long as it's
quiet and not overly large - where they have
dinner and listen to a presentation. The person
who hosts the club makes the presentation.
The host - who will make the presenta-
tion - is selected by the club's principal ser-
vant, a member who is drawn from a round,
black bowler hat at the last meeting of the
year and serves as the only named position
in the club.
"A wonderful term, I know of no better
term for a chair of group than that," Reed
said. "I've occasionally made speeches
around the country to groups of lawyers and
I've somehow managed to work in that the
true indication of a good leader is if he's the
The principal servant organizes every
meeting for the academic year. The bowler hat
the club uses for selecting the principal servant
is unique too - it's one of the club's artifacts.
"Nobody quite knows where it's from,"
This year's principal servant, Charles
Eisendrath, said it needs to be clarified that
the artifacts are "sort of a joke ... they have
no significance, no ceremonial importance."
The items the club possesses are merely
tradition of the group and the only physi-
cal representation of the body. A machete of
unknown origin, some gold coins, Russian
bonds whose whereabouts are unknown and
other trinkets accompany the bowler hat.
At the meeting, the host's presentation can
be about anything, so long as everyone at the
meeting can understand and comprehend it.
"Everyone who presents has to present in
layperson's language." Warner said. "Every
presentation is brought to a level at which
everybody else can understand it and that
allows you access to some very intriguing
ideas, concepts, empirical evidence that you
probably wouldn't have otherwise and that
does make ita lot of fun."
At this month's meeting, Featherman gave
a talk not about his work as a social scientist,
but about becoming a fiction writer.
"Most of what I've done, and one of the
reasons I was invited into the Scientific Club,
was because of what I did as a social scientist
but (at this month's meeting) it was my com-
ing out of my closet," Featherman said. "So
that was my story, 'this is how I got started
in fiction' and so I did some readings of some
of my stories and we talked about all that."
Members don't generally talk about being
members of the club with others because, as
Eisendrath said, "It's like not talking about
something that the other person doesn't
know anything about anyway."
However, when presentations are particu-
larly compelling the members are more likely
to discuss those outside of meetings.
"I've learned a lot through the presenta-
tions," Warner said. "There are a couple of
them thatI sort of come back to and reference
in conversations on other subjects repeatedly
because they were so stimulating and really
made me think about how things worked in
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