This blog usually goes in for serious, meaty subjects. I have a humor category but it doesn’t get many posts. So it’s a pleasure to break out of my ponderous rut to feature here one of the more wonderful obituaries I’ve read in the NY Times in a while.
I’m a fundraiser by trade and those of us in the profession have a slightly perverse habit of reading the obituaries to learn about the fates of our donors (sorry to sound so ghoulish). Actually, I read obituaries because they sometimes provide the only opportunity one ever will have to know that someone lived and had a valuable, productive life. Rutherford Aris was one of these. Not to sound too cynical, but we can skip over his distinguished career as a chemical engineer at the University of Minnesota, his mastery of classical literature, paleology, calligraphy and many other laudable qualities.
For the purpose of this blog, Professor Aris did one extraordinary thing in life. He created an alter-ego and successfully passed it off on the world. And he created this alter ego with the greatest humor and satirical wit you could imagine. It’s also important to know that Aris was a native Englishman. We’ll let the Times obituary writer tell the tale:
Eminent in his field, Professor Aris soon rated an entry – a real one – in Who’s Who in America. But sometime in the early 1970’s, Who’s Who also requested a biography from Aris Rutherford.
Professor Aris wrote back, explaining the mistake. But the requests continued, each more officious than the last. What could the professor do but oblige?
And so, in the 38th edition of Who’s Who in America (1974-75), Professor Aris appears twice: in Volume 1 as himself, and in Volume 2 as Aris Rutherford, who leaps to life in 16 lines on Page 2,672.
“Aris MacPherson Rutherford was born in Strath Spey, Scotland, on April 10, 1930, the son of Archibald MacPherson Rutherford and the former Ephygeneia Aristeides. In 1948, when he was just 18, he earned a diploma from the Strath Spey and Glenlivet Institute of Distillation Engineering. His field rewards intensive study, and several advanced degrees followed.
In 1955, after a stint with the Argyll and Sutherland Regiment, Mr. Rutherford became the chief design engineer and tester for the Strath Spey Distillation Company. He came to the United States the next year.
From 1960 to 1964, when he joined the Minnesota faculty, Mr. Rutherford was a visiting professor of distillation practice at the Technological Institute of the Aegean, in Corinth.
A past trustee of the Scottish-Greek Friendship Foundation, Mr. Rutherford was active in numerous organizations, among them the Distillation Club of Edinburgh, the Burns Society of Minneapolis and the Hellenophilic Club of Minneapolis.
He wrote three books, “Sampling Techniques” (1957), “Distillation Procedures” (1963) and “American Football: A Guide for Interested Scots” (1960).”
Aris Rutherford survived only a year. When the news media got wind of the hoax, Professor Aris came clean, and Who’s Who expunged his doppelgänger from future editions. (This cut short a promising career, for Mr. Rutherford, according to the updated entry Professor Aris had prepared, was about to publish a new book, “American Baseball: A Guide for Interested Englishmen.”)
I especially love his mother’s name, Ephygeneia Aristeides. If that isn’t an in joke only a classicist could create, I don’t know what is. These days, I don’t find much in the world to laugh at or about. I hope you had as good a chuckle over this one as I. And thank you, Rutherford Aris for Aris Rutherford, a wonderful alter ego who gave everyone who read your obituary a needed boost of humor and good cheer.
Melissa Lowe Bates says
Rutherford Aris is my scientific great-grandfather. What a wonderful man to be decended from…
Peter Slater says
Thank you, it’s a wonderful post. Rutherford was my uncle who I knew only a little when he was able to travel each year to London to visit family.
I learnt so much about my own uncle when I attended the memorial service last year, I knew some stories like his who’s who entry (that also found it’s way into Time Magazine), although I lacked some of the details. It may interest you to know that the reason why he refers to sporting books in his fake entry was because he doesn’t like them (any of them!) He played pranks often, not the typical thing you might expect from a Professor!
Melissa Lowe Bates says
That does interest me indeed! I suppose there are so many subtlties to his entry that we may never understand.
From what I have been told of him, he was the quintessential scientist before professors had to spend the majority of their time writing grants and dealing with the beauracracy of university life.
I have certainly enjoyed tracing my scientific “lineage.”