June 12, 2003 -- Paul Cranefield eminent scientist, Benchley fan, dead at age 78

Paul Cranefield, 78, Rockefeller University Cardiology Professor Studied Heart Arrhythmias and History of Science, Helped Found Avant-Garde Theater

By STEPHEN MILLER Staff Reporter of the Sun

Paul Cranefield, a medical doctor and physiologist of international repute who has died at age 78, will be as remembered for his research into cardiac arrhythmias as for his wild enthusiasms, including avant-garde theater, the recreation of famous practical jokes, and poi.

A professor at the Rockefeller University, he published extensively about electrical activity in the human heart as well as episodes in the history of science.

In the nonprofessional side of his life, he was a founding director of La Mama Experimental Theater Club and an enthusiastic walker whose rambles regularly took him to remote locations around the five boroughs of New York City. On one walk he recreated a famous prank by the humorist Robert Benchley, slipping a note under the door at Grant’s Tomb with a reminder to the milkman to "Please leave 2 quarts Grade A and 1 pint whipping cream. U.S.G." His sense of humor could be more disorienting than actually funny.

One windy day on the Upper West Side, during one of his regular Sunday walks with the playwright Paul Foster, he was ranting on some subject while puffing on his pipe, and a cinder fell in his cuff and set his pants afire. So intensely was he pursuing his point that he could not quite concentrate on the emergency occurring around his ankles, so the pants were allowed to smolder on. "He was indefatigable in his thought processes," Mr. Foster recalled with admiration.

Cranefield wrote several important works of cardiology, including "Electrophysiology of the Heart" (1960). In 1981, the Institute for Scientific Information named it a "Citation Classic," with 1,380 citations recorded. In 1988, he was awarded the Medal of the New York Academy of Medicine for work that led to a "new era in cardiac physiology and pharmacology." He continued to publish original research into the 1990s.

He also wrote on the history of science, particularly in matters related to the development of the idea that biological processes could be explained with the laws of physics. An interest in the discovery of electrical activity in the spine and brain seems to have led him to research on the beginnings of psychology. Two of his journal articles on the topic were "A seventeenth-century view of mental deficiency and schizophrenia — Thomas Willis on stupidity or foolishness" and "The discovery of cretinism."A large photograph of Sigmund Freud adorned the wall of his extensive library.

Ranging farther afield both in subject and geography, he wrote a book called "Science and Empire: East Coast Fever in Rhodesia and the Transvaal." His last book, "Born Wanderer," was a biography of the late Victorian explorer Stanley Portal Hyatt.

Born and raised in rural Wisconsin, Cranefield received a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1951. By the early 1960s he had already published widely, and then decided to go to medical school, receiving his M.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1964. In 1966, he began working at Rockefeller University. The same year, he was named editor of the Journal of General Physiology, a post he held for 30 years.

Meanwhile, he was helping to found La Mama, where he was the first chairman of the board. "Ellen [Stewart] and I started La Mama on her unemployment check — $52 — on a bean," said Mr. Foster. "Cranefield advised us to incorporate so we wouldn’t be held liable" in case of an accident. "Also on the board were a dressmaker [and] a couple of wackadoodles. Cranefield was the only one who wore a tie."

He remained on La Mama’s board for many years and developed an intense enthusiasm for Off-Off-Broadway shows. He accumulated such a trove of posters, programs, and other ephemera related to stage productions that he hired his own archivist to organize it. His house was a rabbit warren, but he knew where everything was.

For many years he headed a committee at the National Arts Club that awarded prizes to young playwrights. Winners included Edward Albee and Anna Deveare Smith.

Another enthusiasm was gastronomy, and he abjured junk food. A favorite saying was: "Junk food is for junk people." Playwright Lanford Wilson called him "a real foodie," and informed the Cincinnati Enquirer that Cranefield had once told him, "Really authentic Hawaiian poi is not fit to eat."

"I’ve tried putting that [line] in three different plays," Mr. Wilson said. Thus far he has not succeeded.

Cranefield was known to tipple on occasion, and he insisted on buying his liquor at the same store frequented, years earlier, by W.H. Auden. Despite his medical degree, he was an avid consumer of tobacco, in pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. This apparently caused his demise.

Although Cranefield was accustomed to rubbing elbows with show business royalty, they did not always relish his ministrations. One time, he attended an awards ceremony at the Players Club. Also in attendance was Bette Davis.When he tried to "chat her up, well she just looked at him like he was some kind of undiscovered insect," Mr. Foster said.

"He lived in three worlds: scientific, artistic, and club world," Mr. Foster said. He was a member of several prominent clubs, including the Grolier Club, the Century, Coffee House, and Savile Club. He stayed at their foreign affiliates when lecturing at London or researching at Zimbabwe.

In temperament and delivery he was compared by some to W.C. Fields, "A fussy old Edwardian," Mr. Foster said. "He was born old."

Yet to O. Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club, Cranefield was "eternally young" and had an infectious enthusiasm. "He was Mr. McGoo on this intellectual flying carpet."

Paul Cranefield: Born April 28, 1925, in Madison, Wis.; died May 31 in New York City, of lung cancer; he never married, and there are no survivors.