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'Mr. Wizard' Don Herbert Dies

TV show inspired many to pursue science careers

by Susan J. Ainsworth
June 25, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 26

Credit: NBCU Photo Bank
Herbert on the set of "Watch Mr. Wizard" with two of his young assistants.
Credit: NBCU Photo Bank
Herbert on the set of "Watch Mr. Wizard" with two of his young assistants.

Don Herbert, television's influential science teacher "Mr. Wizard," died of bone cancer at his home in a Los Angeles suburb on June 12. He was 89.

From 1951 through 1964, Herbert's show, "Watch Mr. Wizard," aroused the curiosity of children and demystified scientific principles on a set built like a simple workshop. Adopting an informal style, he used familiar household items such as cans, straws, and paper plates in his lab experiments. Boys and girls served as his on-air assistants.

Born in Waconia, Minn., Herbert was a 1940 graduate of LaCrosse State Teachers College at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse. Active in college dramatics, he majored in English and general science. He held no advanced degree in science but had a voracious appetite for scientific knowledge.

Shortly after graduation, Herbert served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. A second lieutenant, he flew 56 bomber missions over northern Italy, Germany, and the former Yugoslavia.

After the war, Herbert worked as an actor, model, and radio writer before creating "Watch Mr. Wizard," which first aired on WMAQ-TV, NBC's Chicago affiliate. The production moved to New York City in 1955.

NBC briefly revived his show in the early 1970s. In 1972, he produced 50 "Mr. Wizard Close-Ups," 30-second spots that first aired Saturday mornings on NBC. In the 1980s, "Mr. Wizard's World," an updated version of his children's show, aired on Nickelodeon.

Herbert received a Peabody Award for the show in 1954. Some 40 years later, ACS honored him with the 1994 James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. Many researchers have traced an early interest in science back to watching the show as children.

A statement posted by the family on the official Mr. Wizard Studios website ( cites Herbert as "an original and truly legendary figure in the worlds of both television and science education." The family adds, "He has been inspirational and influential in so many ways and on so many lives, and we are comforted in the fact that his groundbreaking work and legacy will continue to inspire many more people for years to come."

Herbert is survived by his wife, Norma, as well as six children and stepchildren.

Llewellyn W. Fancher, a retired pesticide chemist, died on Feb. 26, a month before his 90th birthday.

Fancher was born and raised on Bear Creek Ranch near Merced, Calif. During the Great Depression, his family was forced to leave its farming property and resided in various Southern California towns.

In 1941, he earned a B.A. in organic chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Despite the poor economy, he was able to find a job as a raw materials inspector at Columbia Steel in Pittsburg, Calif. Within three years, he moved on to work in two different laboratories before accepting a position with Stauffer Chemical (acquired by ICI in 1987) in 1952 to spearhead an effort to develop proprietary pesticides.

Despite offers to step into management, Fancher preferred to remain in his laboratory. Before retiring in 1979, he had been issued 85 patents for insecticides and herbicides.

Fancher enjoyed music and taught himself to play the piano at an early age. He later became interested in organs and played a theater organ constructed by a friend. He loved cats, owning as many as 13 at a time.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Martha; a daughter, Elaine; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His son, Alan, preceded him in death.

Fancher joined the ACS in 1943 and was an emeritus member.

Herman Gershon, 86, a plant research chemist, died on Feb. 5.

Gershon earned a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College in 1942 and worked on his master's until his studies were interrupted by World War II. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and a Purple Heart for his service as a medical aidman.

After the war, he completed a master's degree at Fordham University in 1947, and earned a doctorate in chemistry from Colorado State University in 1950.

Early in his career, Gershon worked as director of research at United Organics in Mount Vernon, N.Y. In 1955, he became director of biochemical research at Pfister Chemical Works in Richfield, N.J. In 1962, he joined the nonprofit Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, located at Cornell University, where he worked as a senior research scientist until he retired in 1986.

After retiring, he collaborated with Donald Clarke, professor of chemistry at Fordham University, and with the New York Botanical Gardens; he continued publishing on the antifungal properties of substituted 8-hydroxyquinolines until his death.

Gershon served as chair of the New York Section of ACS from 1968 to 1970 and received its distinguished service award in 1978.

He is survived by his wife, Muriel; two daughters; and five grandchildren. An emeritus member, he joined ACS in 1942.

Obituaries are written by Susan J. Ainsworth. Obituary notices may be sent to and should include detailed educational and professional history.



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