A Lifelong Visionary
Fleur Strand's legacy continues to further the field of science.
It was a simple dinner party, a gathering of two families from opposite corners of the globe, but it would shape Curt Strand's life—and perhaps alter the course of scientific research in this country. The year was 1946, and Strand, then 25 and fresh out of the military, was so smitten with a young woman sitting at his parents' Manhattan dinner table that he insisted on walking her family home after the night had come to an end.
"She had this wonderful British South African accent," Strand recalled recently. "She was an extremely warm, outgoing person, and very beautiful." Of possibly greater significance, the 17-year-old woman brimmed with intelligence and maturity and was "scientifically ambitious," Strand remembers.
He would eventually marry her. Fleur Strand would go on to become a distinguished author, innovator, and educator in the fields of biology and neural science, and serve as the New York Academy of Sciences' second female president. She would break ground in scientific research, pioneering the neuropeptide concept and becoming New York University's first female full-professor in the sciences, Strand said. Along the way, Fleur would forge a path for untold female scientists. "She just lived for that," Strand said. "She pushed women wherever she could."
But Fleur, who passed away in December at the age of 83, might never have become such an influential figure in the sciences had she not accompanied her parents to that dinner in 1946. She had had plans to attend medical school in Edinburgh, Strand explained, but in those days a married woman could not receive her medical degree—and marriage between the two was inevitable. "So she switched to biology and absolutely loved it from the beginning," Strand said.
It is clear that scores of scientists and researchers—from leaders of the Academy to the graduate students whom Fleur mentored over so many years—are grateful for her decision. Academy President and CEO Ellis Rubinstein praised Fleur as "a lifelong supporter of the next generation" and said her work and philosophy "aligned perfectly with the Academy's inspirational goals: to advance science, address global challenges, and support and nurture the scientists and science-literate of tomorrow."
Susi Lee, who met Fleur as an undergraduate student at NYU in 1989, credits Fleur with inspiring her to pursue a PhD in neurobiology. "She was a true mentor, even long after I graduated," said Lee, now a clinical scientist with Merck. "She was one of the most amazing and generous people I ever met. She was really a role model for me as a woman scientist—she showed me that women can have a great role in science."
As much as Fleur adored working with students—whom she affectionately called her "lab rats"—she also felt an obligation to democratize the sciences, "to spread the word of science to people who weren't scientists," Strand said. She frequently gave pro-bono lectures to non-scientists and was once heartened to learn that an inmate on death row had been moved by one of her talks, Strand recalled.
Indeed, Fleur lived, and died, as a passionate and dedicated scientist. She was instrumental in creating the Academy's "Past President's Fund," which encourages former presidents to pledge financial support, and she was a regular contributor to The Darwin Society, a network of individual Academy supporters. But Fleur's patronage, both financial and otherwise, did not end there: upon her passing, she bequeathed a substantial gift to the Academy as a vehicle for further scientific exploration and discovery.
"Other than her marriage and her daughter, of course, and family, the New York Academy of Sciences and NYU, that was her life," Strand said. "And so she felt that she should give something back."
Strand has fond memories of living with Fleur on 63rd Street, just a few blocks from the Academy's location when she became its president in 1987. He said she cherished that period in her life, noting that the proximity between their home and the Academy "certainly increased her ability to spend time there." A short commute, Strand said, was an invaluable luxury for someone whose personal life, passion, and profession were so inextricably linked.
Despite her success, Strand emphasized that his wife, a member of the Academy since 1950, had always maintained an air of modesty and that "her ambition was never overt." Until the day she died, Strand said, Fleur saw science "as a world mission for advancement and for peace."
"She would never have conceived of doing anything else," he said, his voice filled with pride. "To her it was everything."
Noah Rosenberg is a journalist in New York City.