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James Fisher of Fisher Scientific dies at 93

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 8:21 p.m.
James A. Fisher
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
James A. Fisher
Edith and James A. Fisher at an antique show held inside the Carnegie Museum on April 20, 1999.
Edith and James A. Fisher at an antique show held inside the Carnegie Museum on April 20, 1999.

James A. Fisher, 93, who helped his father and brothers build Fisher Scientific Co. into the world's leading provider of scientific products to research and clinical laboratories, died in his home on Wednesday from complications resulting from a fall in September. He was surrounded by his family.

Fisher was born on March 15, 1920, in Pittsburgh, the youngest and last surviving of four sons of Chester G. Fisher, who founded Fisher Scientific in 1902. The family-controlled company, sold in 1981 to Allied Corp. for $330 million, is now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Mass.

His brothers, the late Aiken W. Fisher and the late Benjamin R. Fisher, followed their father as chairman and president. James once said in an interview that his career with the business began with packing crates in the warehouse. He rose to senior vice president of planning and marketing before leaving the company in 1979.

Fisher of Squirrel Hill and his wife of 58 years, Edith, known as “Toto,” who survives him, were known as outstanding hosts, art patrons and collectors. Fisher and his brothers graduated from Yale University and were grandsons of a Union soldier. A fourth brother, Chester Fisher Jr., died at a young age.

Chester G. Fisher founded the business at 21 when he purchased the stockroom of the Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory. The company, initially named Scientific Materials Co., became Fisher Scientific Co. in 1925.

For 90 years, the company was based on Forbes Avenue in the city's Uptown neighborhood. In 1996, it moved to the airport corridor. Duquesne University acquired the company's former headquarters at 711 Forbes Ave., which is now Fisher Hall.

With the move, the company left a unique cache of art, known as The Fisher Collection, numbering well over 2,000 pieces. James Fisher was instrumental in its donation to the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

Jim Cunningham, artistic director of WQED-FM, said Fisher was “a wonderful friend and a great patron of the arts in Pittsburgh. He was very self-effacing and never wanted credit for anything he did.

“We called him the father of WQED-FM. It's a fact that grants from the Fisher Fund were the centerpiece that got FM off the ground in 1971.”

“Jim crackled with creativity,” said Harry Schwalb, who worked for Fisher Scientific as director of public relations and as curator of the Fisher Collection, retiring in 1993.

At Fisher Scientific, the youngest Fisher was in charge of marketing and innovated the publishing of scientific catalogs, introducing color, Schwalb said. “Fisher's (catalog) became the No. 1 tool in the scientific world.” It grew to 2,000 pages, like a phone book, listing 80,000 items, from the original 400 pages, he said.

“A session with him to name a new product would result in the unexpected. He would get his staff to come up with different names and ideas. He was unique in that way. And there were thousands of products to name and promote.”

At one naming meeting, Fisher emphasized that the printed word is very important, according to Schwalb.

“It has to have power,” Fisher said. “And to emphasize that, he slammed down a catalog, which bounced off the table, through a window and fell to the street below. He made his point.”

“He was a stickler for the right word. At a party, if someone used a word he didn't think was right. He would get up and look it up; that was our Jim.”

Fisher wrote a book, “Talking Correctly for Success: A Practical Guide for Business, Professional, and Social Success by Sounding ‘Right,'” which is still available on Amazon.

Fisher was a former president of the Harvard-Yale-Princeton/Pittsburgh Club on William Penn Place, Downtown. He was a trustee for more than 40 years of the Carnegie Museum, of the Carnegie Science Center and was involved in founding of the Andy Warhol Museum.

He was a trustee for many years of the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., which he and brother Benjamin attended.

Fisher was the father of George Shears Fisher of Miami; Chester Garfield Fisher III (Laura) of Ligonier, and James Aiken Fisher Jr. (Janet) of Salt Lake City, Utah; grandfather of James Aiken Fisher III, Claire Atkinson Fisher, Madeleine Scheidt Fisher and Henry Aiken Fisher.

Friends will be received from 3 to 5 and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Fisher residence, 5414 Kipling Road, Squirrel Hill. Service and interment will be private.

Arrangements are being handled by John A. Freyvogel Sons Inc. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or

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