Saul Benison (1920-2006)
John K. Alexander, October 2007
Saul Benison died of pneumonia in a nursing home in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 5, 2006. He was born in New York City on November 2, 1920, grew up in Brooklyn, and graduated from Queens College in 1941, where he was the recipient of the K. S. Pinson Award in History. After serving as a historian for the War Production Board (1943–45), he entered Columbia University's graduate history program in 1945. By the time he received his PhD in 1953, Benison had taught at the City College of New York, Sarah Lawrence College, and Long Island University. A pioneer in the field of oral history, he was a research associate of Columbia University's Oral History Research Office in 1953–61. Although he specialized in the history of medicine and science, he also prepared memoirs in American social history, including one with Arthur M. Schlesinger. In 1953–55, Benison served as a research associate for the American Jewish Tercentenary Committee. From 1962 to 1969, he was adjunct professor in the Brandeis University Department of History and was employed as historian for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
By the early 1960s, Saul Benison was an acknowledged expert in oral history. He functioned as an advisor on oral history for numerous groups and institutions including the American Archives of Art, the American Institute of Physics, and the National Library of Medicine. His Tom Rivers: Reflections on a Life in Medicine and Science; An Oral History Memoir appeared in 1967. The reviewer for Isis called it "a remarkable achievement" and the reviewer for the American Historical Review proclaimed that Benison "has clearly produced a new kind of historical document that is at once the memoir of an important scientific figure and the creation of a historian-interviewer who has framed all the questions and set the historical problems." In 1968 Benison received the American Association for Medical History's William H. Welch Medal for distinguished achievement in medical historiography.
Benison joined the University of Cincinnati's Department of History in 1969 as full professor. He planned to continue his analysis of the history of poliomyelitis by doing an extensive oral history memoir of Albert Sabin. Benison conducted numerous interviews with Sabin, including a video interview in 1979, but the long awaited memoir never saw its way into print. While working on the Sabin project, Benison began collaborating with Clifford Barger and Elin L. Wolfe on a multivolume biography of the noted physiologist Walter B. Cannon. The first volume appeared in 1987 as Walter B. Cannon: The Life and Times of a Young Scientist. Benison and Clifford Barger toiled on the companion volume until Barger died in 1996. Soon thereafter Wolfe took an ever-increasing role in the project due to Benison's declining health. Walter B. Cannon: Science in Society appeared in 2000.
A true New Yorker, Benison did not learn to drive until after he moved to Cincinnati. Although Benison took driver's education twice because he wanted to be sure of his skills, riding with him in his early driving days could be a scary experience. Benison had a well-deserved reputation as a bibliophile extraordinaire. He amassed an extensive history library and a spectacular history of medicine library. Both have now been bequeathed to the University of Cincinnati's library system. Anyone who met Benison quickly discovered that he loved to tell anecdotes and was a connoisseur of jokes. He told stories skillfully and, as a colleague put it, with a little Cheshire-cat grin on his face.
Saul Benison retired from the University of Cincinnati in 1990. While at the University of Cincinnati, he became famous for his willingness to offer a wide range of courses. Although he never married, Benison was in many ways a family man. As his colleagues—especially his junior colleagues—can attest, Benison gave away innumerable books, paid for many a meal, and remembered birthdays. And, as he neared retirement, Benison gave up a merit raise so his younger colleagues' base salaries could be augmented. Graduate students had good reason to give him the nickname "Uncle Saul." While he was a kind person by nature, his special sensitivity to graduate students and younger faculty also reflected the fact that he came of age as a historian at a time when—like today—many a talented historian had to struggle constantly to cobble together a range of appointments merely to survive. He never forgot how hard the early years of a historian's career can be. The faculty and students of the University of Cincinnati benefited greatly from that sensitivity just as the history profession benefited from Saul's pioneering work.
—John K. Alexander
University of Cincinnati