When I was handed the list, it had a tinge of holiness to it — University holiness, if that exists. The names ranged from past and present University presidents to various professors with named professorships or deanships or both — the top scholars on campus.
Then I was told membership was controlled by how many people can fit into a house, and the only rule was there were no rules. I was intrigued. What was this seemingly elitist unknown group of faculty members, and why were they calling themselves the Scientific Club?
Students probably haven’t heard of it. Faculty members probably haven’t heard of it. Only 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 secretive. It’s not secretive at all,” Scientific Club member Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace fellows program at the University, said.
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 each other.
“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,” Scientific Club member David Featherman, professor 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 different walks of the University.
But how does a faculty member become a member of this group? Well, they won’t know until they’re in.
Joining the club
“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 member, said.
At the end of each academic year, the members 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 nominates 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 earlier 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 up.”
Participation has changed over time, but stays between 30 and 40.
Members do not have to be current professors though. The oldest member of the club, John Reed, is 94-years-young and an emeritus professor of law. Reed said overtime he’s experienced a variety of presentations that he has learned from.
“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 10 years.
“He gave one of the liveliest and sprightliest and most spirited presentations I had heard in a very long time, and I just loved it,” Eisendrath said. “It was about why there are so few trials. He’s a lawyer, and it was really interesting and everybody had the same reaction ‘Oh! Oh my god, I didn’t know that!’ ”
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 meeting that spouses of members are invited to attend.
The Scientific Club began in 1883 and was founded by former Physiology Prof. Henry Sewall and former Chemistry Prof. John Langley as a branching off from the defunct Ann Arbor Scientific Association. Sewall and Langley 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, 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 would be someone from almost anywhere you can imagine from campus.”
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 corrected,” Markel said. “It used to be that gentlemen 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 they started.”
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,” Featherman said.
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 presentation — is selected by the club’s principal servant, 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 principal servant.”
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 passed from principal servant to principal servant.
“Nobody quite knows where it’s from,” Markel said.
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.”
Reed put it another way, jokingly.
“(It’s) pretty weird stuff, kind of sophomoric, like junior high school kind of stuff.”
The items the club possesses are merely tradition of the group and the only physical 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 it a 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 coming 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 particularly compelling the members are more likely to discuss those outside of meetings.
“I’ve learned a lot through the presentations,” Warner said. “There are a couple of them that I 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 the world.”