The Last Writes: posthumous publishing

Over on his Chemical connections blog, Stuart Cantrill posted an article last year entitled ‘The Last Writes‘.1  He mentions a number of academics, chemists in particular, that have published posthumously. In the arts and in literature it is not at all uncommon for works to be released after death, however it is hard to imagine many cases where the same might apply in academia. Perhaps there is a 3-4 year window left open by the glacial pace of academic publishing, but beyond that, your days are numbered, so to speak. Two instances in particular caught my eye.

Firstly, Alfred Werner, the first inorganic chemist to win the Nobel prize. A paper published in 2011 used the ubiquitous asterisk footnote to flag the fact that one author, Werner, died in 1919. This means that Werner published his most recent paper a staggering 82 years after his death!

Coming a distant second in this rather bizarre contest is another Nobel laureate in Chemistry, Robert B. Woodward. Woodward was the preeminent chemist of his day, and was known for synthesising many natural compounds for the first time. Woodward authored around 200 papers in his life and was so prolific in the lab that the pace of his scientific discoveries outstripped his ability to publish. As a result, much of his work was published after his death. So it was that in 1993 Woodward was able to co-author a paper, 13 years after his death.

I haven’t been able to find any examples of posthumous publishing in other fields. If you come across any, please do let me know!

  1. Thanks Stuart for the great pun. Try as I might, I couldn’t better this one!
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3 thoughts on “The Last Writes: posthumous publishing

  1. It happens pretty often that people die while having a manuscript in press. The vertebrate paleontologists A. S. Romer and E. R. Dunn both did that; and a year after Romer’s last paper, his former student Moulton published a paper “based on the notes and drawings of A. S. Romer”.

    However, this only gets to 1 to 2 years after death. I know only one case that took longer: when people recently described the fossils that Alan Charig had worked but not published on in the 1950s, they took him on as a coauthor. Charig died in the 80s, IIRC.

    • Thanks David. Very interesting! Had a quick look into Charig – he died in 1997, but I can’t seem to find a book published after that? Admittedly I only did a very cursory search!

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