Column Editor: Myer Kutz (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.)
Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 2
More than three years afterwards, Margaret Dion-Marovitz remembers details of the minutes in 2017 when her husband, Bill, slipped away from her. It was a beautiful sunny day, she recalls, and she came home from work unusually early. Bill had completed immunotherapy four weeks earlier, and he looked and sounded better than he had in months. They were enjoying a lively, cheerful conversation until he walked into the kitchen and suddenly keeled over. She saw his fingers clawing for the top of any kitchen surface he could hang on to. She pushed a chair under him. He kept saying, his voice raspy, “oxygen . . . oxygen . . . oxygen . . . .”
Bill and Margaret had talked about how advantageous it was, in case of a medical emergency, that their Connecticut home was just two miles from an ambulance facility. It took nine minutes for an ambulance to arrive. The ambulance personnel didn’t know how to help Bill. Fourteen more minutes elapsed before medics got to the Marovitz home. By then it was too late. Bill was gone. He was 75 years old. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism.
He’d had other medical episodes in recent years. Seven years earlier, in the summer of 2010, he was hospitalized for some time with massive cellulites on both legs. While he was hospitalized he developed a pulmonary infection and AFib. Back home, finally, after time in a rehab facility, he had to be on oxygen around the clock for several weeks, but was able, subsequently, to resume working in his NYC office. He’d had cancer — a rare form of lymphoma — that required immunotherapy in 2017. His older son, Daniel, told me that Bill, who had weight problems throughout his life, had become “massively obese at 400 pounds.” Daniel theorizes that the chemo could have further weakened Bill’s heart muscle. On the day Bill died, he and Daniel texted back and forth while Daniel was on a flight from London to San Francisco. Texting stopped a couple of hours before the flight landed. Bill died a half hour later.
This past February, an email arrived from my friend Diane Hoffman. The subject was, “Did you know about this?” The email contained a link to an obituary for William Franklin “Bill” Marovitz (you can find it on the Internet easily) and the line, “I am shocked, surprised and full of sorrow that I only saw this 3 years later.” So was I, I told Diane, when we talked on the phone right after I read the obituary, which dated back to October, 2017. We talked about how odd it seemed that neither the information services industry, nor the publishing industry, in both of which Bill had held prominent positions, had provided notice of his passing.
The obituary, I later learned, was written jointly by Margaret, Daniel, and Margaret’s son, Brendan. It covers the main elements of Bill Marovitz’s eventful life. He was born in Salt Lake City and grew up in Oakland, CA. His father was a haberdasher, his mother a librarian. Bill trained as a rabbi, but was never ordained, (His parents weren’t religious; he probably learned more about men’s clothes and library operations than about religion from them.) Instead, he attended UC Berkeley, where he earned a PhD in anatomy and physiology.
Bill was a professor of anatomy at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, the Technion in Haifa, and the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The obituary notes that Bill was “widely recognized for his research in Otolaryngology and his pioneering work in electron microscopy.” Google reveals that from 1969 to 1979 he coauthored 10 papers for Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology and another paper for Otolaryngology. (Margaret told me that his CV lists over 80 articles in the professional literature.)
He ran three major companies — Bibliographic Retrieval Services (BRS), Elscint, which manufactured advanced medical imaging equipment and was the first Israeli company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and Churchill Livingstone, the world’s oldest medical publisher. He also developed an independent company that dealt with medical information and data management (he did that with Margaret) and was associated with or ran other companies that employed digital technologies. He developed and ran several companies for an Omnicom medical division.
The obituary contains numerous personal details, as well as glimpses of other facets of Bill’s life that I wanted to know more about. For example, there’s a mention of work for the Israeli government — “but I can’t talk about that,” he would always say. Also, “he maintained a professional [photography] studio in Manhattan while at Mt. Sinai and worked for Vogue.”
It took me some weeks to track down Margaret and, during telephone conversations with her and then Daniel, to flesh out those intriguing details of Bill’s life. I also spoke with people who had worked with Bill, including Diane (I worked with him during two periods in his life — more about that in a moment).
One detail about Bill’s work for the Israeli government was that while on assignment he was stabbed at Charles de Gaulle Airport. His assailant, it turned out, was a Palestinian/Jordanian operative. Years later, Bill sat down in a chair in a barbershop in Connecticut. He looked at the barber and exclaimed, “It was you!” “It was you!” the barber also exclaimed, probably at the same instant. “The greatest coincidence in the history of the universe,” Daniel calls it. Bill let that barber cut his hair on that day (I’m not sure I would have) and for years afterwards. The two men became friends. That barber also cut Daniel’s hair. Only in America.
As for photography: Daniel told me that Bill was a student of Phillipe Halsman (1906-1979), the famous portrait photographer. Bill shared a loft studio on 33rd Street in Manhattan with another photographer. It was there that he took fashion pictures for Vogue. For years, he also took stills that were used as background when 60 Minutes correspondents sat on high stools facing CBS cameras.
Both sons of haberdashers, Bill and I talked about men’s clothes. He was a trim 43 long in those days, as I remember. According to Daniel, Bill didn’t consider fashion frivolous. He considered great designers great artists. He was interested in the craft of tailoring. While I don’t remember our discussing the technological development and use of fabrics and other materials in clothing, I’m sure he would have been as interested as I’ve always been.
The second time I worked with Bill was when he ran Churchill-Livingstone. He was offered the job around 1994/1995 in “a call out of the blue,” as Margaret put it. (There was a connection, however, which I’ll mention in a moment.) The office was on Sixth Avenue. I showed up there a couple of days a week, as I remember, as a marketing consultant. Churchill had acquired Wiley’s medical list, the crown jewel being Principle and Practices of Infectious Diseases. (I knew one of the original editors, Jerry Mandell, better, let’s say, than I wanted to. The work is still going strong all these years later.)
Bill was attracted to Churchill because it published Grey’s Anatomy which, as an anatomist, he’d been interested in for a very long time. During his time there, he brought out the 38th edition on a dynamic CD-ROM and in print. But by his fourth year, Bill realized that Pearson, which owned Churchill, wanted to sell it off. According to Margaret, Bill was asked to start letting go people who would be redundant after the sale to another publisher, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. Around 1999, W. B. Saunders bought Churchill; eventually, Saunders was swallowed up by Elsevier.
The first time I worked with Bill was when he was running BRS in the 1980s. The first deal I made after Wiley assigned me to establish an electronic publishing operation in 1980 was with the Harvard Business Review (HBR). When HBR asked me to arrange for their bibliographic information to be available online, I said I would do so providing I could also put the full text of the magazine online. BRS was the only online service at that time that had the computing power (courtesy of a deal with SUNY that Bill’s predecessors had made) and software to do so. Not too much later, I discovered that the Mack Printing Company, which printed Wiley’s 26-volume Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, a premier reference work, had saved the composition tapes, so BRS could put that work online, as well. (Wiley’s management didn’t want me to put journals online for fear that I would destroy print sales. There was no need to worry; no one had saved composition tapes. On the other hand, Martin Grayson, the in-house editor of Kirk-Othmer, had no such fear and was all for electronic publication. ) Eric Johnson, whom I’d hired when I was finalizing the contract with BRS for the HBR project, and who later was second-in-command at Engineering Information, which is now owned by Elsevier (isn’t everything? you may be muttering), reminded me recently about how delighted he and I were when we learned that BRS could make Kirk-Othmer’s tables fully searchable.
In their obituary, Margaret and her sons wrote: “Keenly interested in technology and medical information, Bill and a Harvard-trained M.D. . . . developed the first fully searchable full-text online medical database. . . .” That M.D. is David Margulies, who eventually went on to his own distinguished career at the intersection of medicine and information technology. We spoke in early April for the better part of an hour about Bill’s career, about BRS, and about David’s and Bill’s association.
David, who was in clinical training some forty years ago, was investigating ways to create a knowledge management system for the neurosciences. He bought a Radio Shack microcomputer that didn’t work. On his way to bring the machine back, he happened to find a seat on the NY subway next to a man who happened to be a Tandy Corp. executive (Tandy owned Radio Shack), who noticed the box, struck up a conversation, and made the connection to another man who, the executive happened to know, was also interested in medical information and had also bought a Radio Shack microcomputer — Bill Marovitz.
As David put it, “Bill was undergoing a transformation from an academic to a medical technologist.” “Bill loved teaching but his heart and soul were in electronic publishing,” Margaret said in an email to me. He and David decided to create a company to distribute microcomputers for text management software for medicine. When Mead Data Central backed out of a deal to support them, they went to BRS with its computer power and search software. When BRS was about to come under the umbrella of Thyssen–Bornemisza, which had a portfolio of information handling companies, Bill and David rolled their project into BRS and in “one fell swoop,” as David put it, rolled the project into Thyssen.
So when Bill was brought in to run BRS around 1982, he had more heft behind him, but he was also part of a corporate structure. “What I remember most about Bill,” Diane told me, “was his vision. He could see four or five years out. But that didn’t necessarily put him in synch with management. I don’t know whether he was listened to or not.” (Margaret recalls that “Bill did enjoy working with H. Thyssen.”)
David would go back to Columbia Presbyterian, where he pulled together the first electronic medical textbook. Later, among other things, he went into the medical records business. He’s still very much active.
BRS, with Bill at the helm, launched a service called BRS Colleague, with textbooks and peer-reviewed journals licensed from medical publishers, including Churchill Livingstone (which is when Pearson, Churchill’s owner, came into contact with Bill). With Colleague, BRS was delivering electronic medical information to physicians’ workplaces. Debbie Hull, who went on to head OVID Technologies, ran the project. Under her leadership, the number of users ran into the high 70,000s.
BRS developed a standalone version of full text search software. (Bob Hamilton was the lead software architect behind BRS Search.) Bill invested heavily in it, David told me, and there is a straight line between that project and Google software, he added. BRS technology and product design, through W.B Saunders to Elsevier, he also noted, was the “root stock” of Elsevier’s electronic publishing. Margaret noted that Bill was also very proud that other organizations, such as Scotland Yard, were using BRS Search on his watch.
BRS, David told me, was “ground zero” for commercial full text searching and for electronic medical publishing. But it wasn’t the Internet. He and Bill knew what was needed to go to the next step: they knew that pay-by-the-minute (the way online usage was charged back then) didn’t work, that there were too many interfaces, that a common query language was needed. Nevertheless, he had to admit, they didn’t have the tools and systems to develop anything like the Web.
Still, they did show that full text searching was possible. Although, when the Internet burst out, the focus was on consumer stuff, not information for medical and other professionals. That came a little later, when STM publishers got their act together. Maybe, in the last analysis, what BRS did amounted to “proof of concept,” as Eric commented.
As Margaret told me, Bill used to say that his years at BRS were the “golden years.” “He was a wonderful man, a delight to work with,” Joe Paulson, who did software development at BRS and eventually went to work at OVID, said. “Bill excited the people who worked at BRS.”
But after five years or so, Bill walked away. He had a non-compete. Drawing on his Israeli connections and career as an anatomy professor, he became CEO of Elscint. 1989 he went into business with Margaret, his second wife, the woman who saved him from the dark despair he experienced after his first wife, Ronnie, died much too young of cancer. The business was called Reliance Medical Information (RMI). “We always said we co-founded it; he did technical and I did editorial for a variety of projects,” Margaret wrote in an email to me.
Years later, in the spring of 2011, Bill retired. He told Margaret that he was “done.” Not quite, however. Despite his rabbinical training, he wasn’t a religious man, but he did believe that Judaism has a lot to teach, and in his retirement he became intensely interested in the Talmud. He studied the texts and commentaries every day and, being Bill Marovitz, he read them in Amaraic, Cannanite, Syriac, and Biblical Hebrew. He would debate Hasidic rabbis, whom he met online.
When it came to rules and regulations, Bill was “defiant,” Daniel told me. Bill considered funerals “stupid.” So was sitting shiva. His requests were that he be buried in a shroud and that there should be a party. There was a traditional Jewish graveside service three days after he died. An hour later, there was a luncheon at a local Italian restaurant, with a quartet playing the jazz that Bill loved. (“Dave Brubeck was his god and Take Five his anthem,” Margaret reminisced to me.) It was the party that Bill wanted when he died. He would have loved it. The pianist/leader of the quartet agreed that that post-funeral party was a wonderful idea.