I have been too consumed with a tumble of emotion and memory to write about the passing of my dear friend and colleague Griffith Edwards, a towering figure in the addiction field for more than 40 years. NYT caught some of his magic with its obituary, and along with his other friends I am working now to do the same with obituaries in British newspapers and medical journals.
I share Michael O’Hare’s interest in what constitutes class, and one of my favorite memories of Griffith recalls his classiness like no other.
Some academics who serve as a journal reviewers or editors show a complete lack of class in how they critique their colleagues’ work. They delight in being nasty, even brag to colleagues about how devastating their remarks have been to the author. The classless editors of the journal “Environmental Microbiology” even celebrate on an annual basis the cruelty of their peer reviewers.
Not so Griffith. For a quarter century, he edited Addiction and transformed it into the most widely cited and read journal on substance use in the world. Early in my career, I reviewed a paper that had been submitted to Addiction and met a most unfortunate fate. Due to an clerical error at the author’s university, it was submitted twice to two different deputy editors rather than once, meaning that 6 different reviewers at Addiction critiqued it, rather than the usual two or three.
The paper was dreadful, and the reviews, while not ungentlemanly, were accordingly quite negative. Accepting the paper for publication was out of the question. Rarely has an author received so many negative comments and at such length, but Griffith’s cover letter was shockingly kind. He read through the 20 pages of reviews with great care, taking time in his rejection letter to note every positive point and to provide where he could ideas for improvement. And then he closed the letter with lines I will always remember:
I know from having my own work rejected for publication so many times that nothing an editor can say will make the experience less than upsetting. But nonetheless I want you to know that my scholarly respect for you remains undimmed.
I saved that letter in my desk for 20 years and used it to measure my own subsequent performance as an editor, a colleague and a person. Class is not read in how we treat people from whom we want something or in how we flatter those who have done well, but in how we treat those who have stumbled and thereby become vulnerable to our judgement. Griffith’s instinct not to savage a wounded colleague but instead to announce himself a fellow, flawed human being was one of many reasons why I will always regard him as one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.