The New York Times, Sunday May 11, 1986

A Success Story That Started In A Chicken Coop

By Philip B. Taft Jr.

Growing up in New York City, Eugene Garfield spent hours in the public library reading, not books, but titles.  By the time he was out of high school, he had scanned them all and organized them in his head.

“At some point in life,” Mr. Garfield says of that boyhood pastime, you want to find out what’s the meaning of it all. I found my answers through classification.”

Now 61 years old, he has become not only one of the world’s leading “information scientists” but also a successful business entrepreneur, thanks mostly to his ability to manipulate and market titles, footnotes and other bibliographic paraphernalia.

As founder and president of the Institute for Scientific Information, Mr. Garfield heads what is believed to be the world’s largest commercial provider of information services in the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities.

The company of which he is the principal stockholder, generates more than 30 information-related products and services, including extensive customized computer databases. But most of its revenue comes from collecting titles, footnotes and other bits of reference from scholarly journals and selling them to scientists, teachers, librarians and others in easy-to-use formats.

One writer called these products “elegantly simple ideas.”  But those simple ideas have produced enormous success for Mr. Garfield and the company, whose sales are expected to reach $35 million this year.  Not bad for someone who started in a chicken coop.

It was in 1952 that Mr. Garfield, indexing medical literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, hit upon the idea of organizing footnotes as a way of organizing knowledge.  In a recent interview, he recalled thumbing through a copy of Shepard’s Citations, a legal reference tool, and having “a eureka experience.” 

Three years later, he rented a converted chicken coop in Thorofare in Gloucester County and started cranking out the first issues of Current Contents on an old platemaker and offset printer.

Eugene Garfield Associates – Mr. Garfield and one employee – lasted until 1960, when the founder changed the company’s name to the Institute for Scientific Information and introduced its second major product, Index Chemicus, a computer-based molecular formula index.

Restless, Mr. Garfield took a risk a few years later and, against the advice of experts, created the Science Citation Index.

“People said that Current Contents wouldn’t break even in 10 years,” said Charles Tyroler 2d, a close friend and an ISI board member.  “It did – and well before that.”

Today, the company has more than 600 employees, 472 in its Philadelphia corporate headquarters and 159 in its Pennsauken data center.  There, two shifts of keyboard operators and “data preparers” feed into a massive computer more than 11 million citations from 7,100 journals each year.

There are plans to publish a science newspaper that will serve as the field’s first  “journal of record.”  And Mr. Garfield is nursing a number of pet projects, including an extensive “map of knowledge” linking ideas with ideas.

“They’re way ahead of things in the information market,” said one of ISI’s business associates.  “They’re where McGraw-Hill and others would like to be.” 

Despite all this, little has changed about the man many call “the father of citation indexing.”  People close to him say he remains the way he was when he started in the chicken coop: intense, offbeat and enigmatic.

Stories of his energy are legion.  Some employees insist he works until 2 a.m. every day;  others say he has a switchboard line connecting the office to his posh Society Hill apartment here.

Another story has it that, on a recent trip to England, Mr. Garfield looked up Current Contents subscribers there and visited a handful in the middle of the night.

“I don’t know if it’s true” said one company executive, “but I believe it.” 

Mr. Garfield’s way of life is hardly that of a business baron.  He has been known to take the subway to work (“efficiency,”  he said), and his office is filled with brightly colored weavings of the Huichol Indians of Mexico, who use peyote – a cactus button that, when chewed, produces hallucinations – in their religious rituals.

The company’s offices also are adorned  with $500,000 worth of curious modern art, another Garfield passion.  <>

Often dressing in garish colors – orange is his favorite – and sporting a tangle of curly brown hair tumbling well over his collar, Mr. Garfield looks more the absent-minded professor than a pioneer entrepreneur.

“I really don’t have much in common with that many corporate executives,” he said.  “I went to a meeting of  young (corporate) presidents once and I couldn’t fathom them.”

Reflective and self-effacing, he insists he is first an information scientist and science journalist (he writes a weekly column for Current Contents) and then a businessman. 

Mr. Garfield seems to lack the toughness typical of many executives, and Mr. Tyroler says “he finds it hard to fire people.”

The company has both a day-care facility for employees’ children and a grant program for institutions that cannot afford its more expensive products.

“He has had the profit motive since day one,” said Kimber E. Vought, company counsel and board member, “but never to the disadvantage of other people.”

Others see deeper motives at work.  “I would sum it up as (a quest for) immortality,” said Mr. Tyroler.  “You can see it in the steps leading to his office.  Somewhere, he’s got a mural depicting various scientists – Einstein and others – and he’s got information scientists there as well.  Well, he’s an information scientist.” Mr. Garfield dismissed such speculation.

“ I get embarrassed if I get recognition that I did something with my natural endowments,” he said.  “I’ve really never felt put out to do the things that I have done.”

Mr. Garfield tugged at his orange tie, thought for a moment and then began telling a joke about a Vassar student who became a hard-working woman of the night.  One evening, a customer surveyed her spacious, well appointed apartment, Mr. Garfield said, and asked: “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a job like this?”  He delivered the punch line: “She says, ‘Just lucky, I guess.’”  Then he grinned and said: “That’s me – just lucky, I guess.”