Edward Seymour Cornish, founder and first president of the World Future Society and editor of its magazine, The Futurist, died August 14, 2019. He was 91. A longtime Maryland resident (Bethesda and Rockville), Cornish had been living at Olney Assisted Living in Olney, Md., during his battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Cornish was born in New York City August 31, 1927, the son of George Anthony Cornish, an editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and Elizabeth Furniss (McLeod) Cornish. He attended New York schools and Harvard College, where he majored in social psychology. Following his graduation in 1950, he joined the staff of the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, D.C., as a copy boy, later becoming a dictationist and part-time reporter.
In 1951, Cornish joined UPI as a staff correspondent and served successively in the news agency’s bureaus in Richmond, Raleigh, London, Paris, and Rome. While in Europe, he reported from Geneva on the 1954 international conferences on Korea and Vietnam; covered a Wimbledon tennis tournament; accompanied former President Harry Truman on a tour through Italy and Austria in 1956; interviewed Somerset Maugham on his 80th birthday; reported on anti-American demonstrations in London, and encountered many public figures ranging from Duncan Hines and King Farouk to Konrad Adenauer and Anthony Eden. His articles appeared in newspapers around the world.
In 1957, he joined the National Geographic Society as a staff writer in the Society's news service. There he wrote articles on computers, xerography, astronomy, oceanography, microbiology, and other topics. The articles were published in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and hundreds of other papers.
“My life in 1960 was rather idyllic,” he wrote in 2007. “After spending six years working all hours of day and night as a United Press correspondent in five different cities of America and Europe, I had secured a nice quiet 9-to-5 job with the National Geographic Society in Washington. All I had to do was write feature articles on science, natural history, and geography. For me this was like paradise.”
But as the existential threats of the Cold War came too close to Cornish’s home in the Washington suburbs, he briefly considered moving his young family to Australia, out of harm’s way. His wife, Sally, refused to make that move, however. “My intense anxiety slowly subsided, but the years of growing crisis left me with an obsession: Is there any way to decide what may happen in the future?”
Cornish began sharing his concerns with friends. He gradually came to see the future as an “exciting frontier” that offered opportunities as well as risks and that was susceptible to human intervention. In 1966, he put together a six-page newsletter, The Futurist, containing brief reports on books and activities related to the future, which he sent to people he thought might be interested. There was a favorable response from many distinguished people, including Buckminster Fuller, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. A number also indicated an interest in a proposed association for people interested in forecasts of forthcoming social and technological changes.
On August 3, 1966, Cornish convened a meeting of persons interested in establishing the proposed association. The meeting was held in an office of the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. An organizing committee was formed, and a plan was gradually worked out. The World Future Society was officially founded on October 18, 1966. The first regularly scheduled typeset issue of The Futurist appeared in early 1967. The creation of the World Future Society and The Futurist would thus provide both a forum for uniting forward-thinking individuals working separately and a platform for disseminating their ideas.
By 1967, the World Future Society had about 3,000 members, and the task of handling the Society’s affairs and editing The Futurist, which was growing from a newsletter into a magazine, could no longer be done on a part-time basis. So Cornish left his regular employment and worked as a full-time volunteer, supporting himself and his family from savings. By 1970, however, his savings were nearly exhausted and the Society could not afford to pay him on a regular basis.
At that point, a Society member on the White House staff arranged for him to become a consultant for the White House National Goals Research Staff. For several months, Cornish worked full time for the White House, earning enough money to survive financially until the Society could begin to pay him a small regular salary.
While at the White House, Cornish worked principally on the basic natural science portion of the NGRS report Toward Balanced Growth: Quantity with Quality.
The Society expanded rapidly in the following years, adding conferences, a professional journal, and other activities to its services.
In 1975, Cornish served as project director for a directory of future studies under a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Library of Congress. The results were published under the title Resources Directory for America's Third Century.
From 1984 to 1986, Cornish wrote a weekly syndicated column, “Your Changing World,” which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Sun-Times, and other papers.
In 1985, President Reagan invited Cornish and several other leading futurists to lunch with him and Vice President Bush at the White House. It was the first time that a U.S. president had brought futurists to the White House to get their counsel.
Cornish was a frequent guest on radio and television programs. Interviewers have included Bryant Gumble, Chris Wallace, Judy Woodruff, Leslie Stahl, Charlie Rose, Jane Pauley, and Larry King.
Cornish stepped down as president of the World Future Society in 2004 but continued to edit The Futurist through 2010. After his retirement, Cornish lived in Rockville, Md., with his son and daughter-in-law Jeff and Jill (Martineau) Cornish. He is also survived by son Tony (and daughter-in-law Wendy) and four grandchildren, Marty, Preston, Katie, and Edward. His wife, journalist Sally Woodhull Cornish, died in 1992, and his son, Blake McLeod Cornish, died August 24, 2019.
Update August 22, 2019:
A Memorial Service for Edward Cornish will be held Saturday, September 21, 2019, at 11:00 a.m.
Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church
9601 Cedar Lane
Bethesda, MD 20814
Tribute to Edward Cornish (World Future Society video, 2014, by Cynthia G. Wagner)
- William E. Halal: This is a momentous passing. Ed Cornish started the "futurist movement" almost single-handedly when the idea was almost unheard of. He grew the WFS into about 30,000 members who joined together at conferences of as many as 8,000 people. By spreading this interest in the future around the globe, Ed really did create a World Future Society, a society of the future that we are struggling with now.
- Jim Burke: The world is less kind and thoughtful with his departure and he was one of the last of his kind. ... Ed was a rare person who had a deep curiosity and intellect, amazing organizational skills, and an abiding kindness and humility. He was the example of a servant leader. Like many others Ed’s work introduced me to and put me on the path of foresight.
- Jerome C. Glenn: Ed Cornish did what no one else was willing to do in 1966: create an organization of futurists, be they right wing or left wing, scientist or artist, business or academic.
There was nothing like it then. The association cut across both ideologies and professions for scholarly and collegial discussion about the future of the world. Sure, there was RAND (1948) and Futuribles (1960) before WFS, but WFS was patterned after the National Geographic Society to be open to all.
Ed created the common ground for rational discourse on the future. Granted it was mostly Americans and still so today, but it was the beginning of talking with “the other” about the future in a serious fashion.
Countless young futurists earned their rite of passage to professional status through attending and speaking at WFS conferences, writing articles for The Futurist, and participating in local WFS chapters.
Here’s to you Ed! You made a clearing in the forest of noisy silliness for clearer signals of future developments to be heard.
- Julio Millán: When a man like Ed Cornish's vision and talent pass away, a leadership vacuum is created, but it also creates the great opportunity for his teachings and actions as the World Future Society to be a legacy that benefits millions of people.
There is no way to express THANK YOU, but to honor you with the prestige of daily activities. The World Future Society – Capitulo Mexicano, was formed in its time and with the support of publications such as Futurist magazine, as and others, allowed many to take an interest in the respective and above all create the future.
- Marilyn Liebrenz-Himes: For many of us, Edward Cornish was the introduction to The Future, and the World Future Society. His enthusiasm and focus figuratively opened the door to studies on the unknown. Thank you Ed for leading the way.
- Thomas Lombardo: Ed was great to me when I was first publishing on future consciousness and wisdom; I very much appreciated his interest in my work. His personal and professional presence and his many important contributions to futures studies was of great significance.
- Zhouying JIN, China chapter of World Future Society: We [were] shocked to learn that Ed Cornish, the founder or the WFS, the pioneer of futurology in the world, had died. We are deeply saddened by the loss of such a great futurist. The death of ED is a great loss to the world's future academia. His vision and spirit of struggle have made indelible contributions to the futurist of the world. It is worth learning forever.
- Jay Gary: We are indebted to his kindness, his writings and the collegiality he created among futurists worldwide. ... [His] departure brings sorrow, yet gratitude for what he left us all.
- Mark Segraves: Ed Cornish was a trailblazer who looked to the future, and founded the [World Future Society]. He was also a dear family friend. He will be missed.
- Jim Dator: It is not certain there would be futures studies now if Ed and Sally Cornish had not created the World Future Society and published The Futurist which, for a while, was the only magazine "about the future" that most Americans were likely to encounter on newsstands and public libraries.The early meetings of the WFS were big circuses with every possible act in the world on display, if they could somehow find their way to the Hilton Hotel in Washington to participate. As Ruben Nelson notes, the 1980 meeting in Toronto (its first not held in DC, I believe) assembled the largest group of futurists ever under one roof. Every futures-oriented person now owes a huge debt of gratitude to them for planting the vineyard in which we all now labor.
- Hazel Henderson: I joined the WFS in the late 1960s and was inspired and intellectually awakened by my associations with Ed and so many WFS members, including Alvin and Heidi Toffler and particularly, my lifelong friendship with Barbara Marx Hubbard, who left us also in this year 2019. With my appreciation to Julie Friedman Steele, who took up the mantle as President and Chair of WFS.
- Julie Friedman Steele, World Future Society: The WFS community, its friends, and, indeed, all futurist-minded people, have lost an extraordinary international leader and pioneer whose enormous achievements in spreading futurist inspiration and thinking are unique. ... It was an honor and a privilege to meet and know Edward Cornish. Running the World Future Society today is like running a baton relay, while standing on the shoulders of giants.
Ed Cornish was right – we do all have tremendous power to shape the Future.
The World Future Society is here to more than ever co-create the desired futures we want to see in the world and we are uniquely well-positioned today to carry out and collaborate on initiatives advancing our global civilization and our species – thanks to our founder and all the other legendary futurists he gathered to work alongside him at the World Future Society.
Coming from a Family Business myself, I am especially aware of how hard the Cornish family worked together to keep this organization going, including after Edward's retirement. My thoughts are with his entire family, and so are those of the World Future Society community.
I'm humbled by all that Edward Cornish achieved. ...
- Timothy C. Mack (president, WFS, 2004-2014): I was introduced to WFS by the Chairman of the first General Assembly, John Gerba, who recruited me in 1971 to work as part of the D.C. conference staff. But it was Ed and Sally Cornish that kept me coming back year after year.
While Ed was the mind of the organization, Sally was the heart and a marvel at persuading people to do what they initially thought they had neither the time or resources to accomplish. And it was that mind and heart team that led me deeper into the Society over the years, coupled with the realization that WFS was more than just The Futurist and the General Assemblies, but in fact a global community where members from all walks of life and cultures could address their challenges and realize visions for their lives, communities and home countries around the world.
I salute Ed for having that vision in founding WFS and for modeling the volunteer passion that began with his own family (including his children), as I ended up following that path myself. But he was also an effective leader and trainer for the staff of the Futurist, producing a unique and timely journalistic product over the years that served as the model for a growing number of imitators (and sister publications) around the world. Truly he will be missed, and we shall not see his like again.
- Cindy Wagner: Boss. Mentor. Role model. When you work beside someone every day, you take their “greatness” for granted. You’re more likely to see evidence of their humanity and humility.
Ed could easily quote from his favorite thinkers—Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. But he could just as easily quote from Seinfeld and Fawlty Towers, his favorite TV shows. Shakespeare knew the value of comic relief.
Ed was a believer in the Myers-Briggs tests and based a lot of The Futurist’s editing principles on his understanding that our readers were NTs, or “Intuitive Thinkers.” What that meant for us editors was ensuring that the language we used was always clear and faithful to the author’s intent.
That’s why, when Ed once told me I “think like a man,” I could only take it as a compliment—what he intended—because I think he really meant I think like him. Definitely a compliment.
When you work next door to someone, you get lots of those random, casual conversations in each other’s doorways, like once when Ed confessed to being a coward. I’m not sure how that came up, but he meant fear of physical pain.
Ed has written about his fear of nuclear war during the height of the Cold War. He first considered “flight”—moving his family to Australia and out of harm’s way. But apparently Sally said No.
Then his thoughts turned to “fight”—using the weapons available to him: his vast curiosity, his reporter’s instincts for asking the right questions, his ability to communicate and connect with others whose fears, hopes, and principles aligned with his own.
To then create an organization from scratch that inspired others to conquer their fears and build the future is hardly the act of a coward.
But a better way to honor our role models is to emulate them with as much earnest passion as we praise them.