The University of Chicago News Office
July 1, 2003 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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jschonwa@uchicago.edu
 

Susan Abrams, Editor, 1945-2003

Susan Abrams, a legendary editor who nurtured dozens of authors and hundreds of books as she built the University of Chicago Press’s prestigious science list from scratch, died Sunday at Mercy Hospital in Chicago of lung cancer. She was 57 years old. To many who worked with her, she represented a model of commitment to the art of producing important books that were a pleasure to read.

Abrams, the editor for history, philosophy, and social studies of science, was described as an editor of uncommon vision and devotion who attracted good writers and helped them produce outstanding work. “Susan was a really meticulous and demanding editor. And everybody accepted this because she was completely devoted to her authors and pulled out every stop, every day to make things turn out right,” said Erin Hogan, publicity director of the Press. As some measure of her success, under her tenure the University of Chicago Press won the History of Science Society’s Pfizer Awards, the field’s highest honor, for seven of its books. Six were edited by Abrams.

Born July 27, 1945 in St. Louis, Abrams attended Washington University, where her intense commitment and ability to bond with authors was already in evidence: as a student she once phoned Norman Mailer in the middle of the night, having written over 300 pages for a short paper on his symbolism. He responded supportively and they stayed in touch. After working at the CV Mosby publishing house in St. Louis, she was hired in 1979 by the University of Chicago Press to fill a difficult position as the ninth sciences editor in ten years. While the press had published Thomas Kuhn’s highly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, it was publishing few science books when she arrived, and Abrams had to compete with Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia and Princeton University Presses, all of which were well established, to attract new authors.

Abrams built the Press’s science list by putting ads in science journals and talking to graduate students to find out who had interesting new projects. Her commitment to finding and nurturing good work paid off, as more and more important books began to appear under her guidance. Barbara Hanrahan, who was working at the Press as a senior editorial assistant when Abrams arrived and remained friends with her since, said that Abrams was “a truly spectacular editor of the kind that you just don’t see anymore - in terms of her intelligence, in terms of her ability, and in terms of the way in which she worked with each and every author and each and every book to make it the best possible book. She worked with people at a level of detail and a level of devotion that is truly extraordinary. The best evidence of that is how her books have sold over the years and how devoted her authors have been to her - staying in touch, remaining friends, providing advice and coming back to her with subsequent books. She was truly one of a kind.”

Hanrahan said that Abrams also had a variety of passions outside of editing: “She was absolutely hilarious - a wonderful sense of humor. She had an extraordinary range of interests outside of books, did a lot of sculpture and pottery; she made beautiful things, did everything from needlepoint to collecting shells, she was a great lover of classical music but has everything Bob Dylan ever recorded. The intensity and breadth you saw in her work she also brought to many other things.” But it was the sheer excellence of her editing that made the greatest impact on those around her, Hogan recalls: “They say when you played Michael Jordan you became a better basketball player - well, when you worked with Susan Abrams you just did a better job. She had an infectious integrity. Susan lived a quiet life but it was so completely enriched that it was exemplary.”

 

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Last modified at 02:58 PM CST on Thursday, July 03, 2003.

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