Lewis Thomas, biologist and physician, won a literary reputation with The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, a collection of essays which received the National Book Award in 1974. He followed this with five more essay collections, The Medusa and the Snail (1979), Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983), The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher (1983), Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher (1990), and The Fragile Spedes (1992). His essays began appearing monthly in the New England Journal of Medidne in 1971, each with an allotted length of about 1000 words. It was at the suggestion of Joyce Carol Oates that he first collected and published some of these in one volume. His essays subsequently came out in the New York Review of Books and other journals and magazines.
Thomas’ essays are the musings of a medical expert at ease. Shrewd and technical on the one hand, graceful and humanistic on the other, they read like a busman’s holiday: at the end of the day’s work, the scientist relaxes in his den and reflects—not as a professional, but as an ordinary citizen. Each essay relies on his special knowledge of biology and the medical profession, and ranges philosophically—now whimsically, now critically, sometimes grimly—over issues confronting an educated person in the second half of the 20th century. The human need for society, the fragility and the resiliency of life, the bomb, the abuse of drugs, the healthcare system, personal identity, national defense, the possibility of life on other planets, and dying—these are among the many issues he explores. His optimism is seasoned in his essays by a Yankee practicality. He criticizes defense spending and offers downto-earth reasons for funding pure research. He excoriates the notion of acceptable losses in a nuclear war and soberly counts the social and personal costs of heroin addiction.
Underlying all these issues, Thomas’ major theme is the unity of life. Individuality is an affectation or an illusion: human beings are not so much individuals as collections of autonomous life forms and, on a larger scale, participants in a huge life mass— unplanned, perhaps, but nevertheless orderly. Thomas’ wonder at the natural world echoes that of Loren Eiseley.
Thomas’ style is readable and charming. He brings to his craft a love of language and a gift for artfully reducing formidable technical concepts to everyday conversation. He can substitute a common expression for a technical term with such a touch of the poetic that the new expression not only translates, but domesticates. In “On Societies as Organisms” (1971), for example, he explains that a few termites together behave randomly, but a larger number coordinate their efforts: “As more join in, they seem to reach a critical mass, a quorum …” To describe the isolation of single cells before they reach this critical mass, he again makes the arcane familiar: “At first they are single amebocytes swimming around, eating bacteria, aloof from each other, untouching, voting straight Republican.” The folksy reference activates a whole neighborhood of recognizable images, allowing the reader to feel at home and at ease with a technical concept.
Literary allusions dot his essays. In “Vibes” (1972), questioning how a life form attains a unique identity, he punctuates a chemical analysis with a droll allusion to Shakespeare:
“any set of atoms, if arranged in precisely the same configuration, by whatever chemical name, might smell as sweet.”
Such allusions soften the edges of Thomas’ expertise. In a longer passage, too, Thomas may introduce an exotic term and gradually make it not only understandable, but as homely as one’s own backyard. This is the lead paragraph of “A Fear of Pheromones” (1972):
What are we going to do if it turns out that we have pheromones? What on earth would we be doing with such things? With the richness of speech, and all our new devices for communication, why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything? We can send notes, telephone, whisper cryptic invitations, announce the giving of parties, even bounce words off the moon and make them carom around the planets. Why a gas, or droplets of moisture made to be deposited on fence posts?
This merging of the technical with the commonplace is typical of Thomas’ witty, urbane style and emblematic of his vision of universal harmony.
A lover not only of words, but also of music, Thomas makes one of his most charming assertions, again uniting the worlds of the scientific and the humane, in “Ceti” (1972), when he considers what message humankind might best broadcast into outer space to identify ourselves to possible other life forms: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance.”
Thomas’ style often recalls that of Montaigne, whom he cites along with 17th-century literary lights. Like theirs, his writing is aphoristic (“Language is what childhood is for”) and, despite his scientific and political sophistication, he always sounds like an amateur, a curious mind flying by the seat of its pants.
See also Medical Essay; Science Essay
Born 25 November 1913 in Flushing, New York. Studied at Princeton University, New Jersey, B.S., 1933; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.D., 1937. Intern, 1937–39, and fellow, 1941–42, Boston City Hospital; resident in neurology, Neurological Institute, New York, 1939–41. Married Beryl Dawson, 1941: three daughters. Served in the U.S. Naval Reserve, 1941–46. Visiting investigator, Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, 1942–46; taught pediatrics, medicine, and/or pathology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1946–48, Tulane University, New Orleans, 1948–50, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1950–54, New York University, 1954–69, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1969–73, and Cornell School of Medicine, New York, 1973– 93; president and chief executive officer, 1973–80, and chancellor, 1980–83, Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York. Also worked at or attached to various hospitals. Contributor to many journals and magazines, including Science, Saturday Review of Science, and Nature; columnist of “Notes of a Biology Watcher” in the New England Journal of Medicine, from 1971. Member, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984.
Awards: many, including the National Book Award, for The Lives of a Cell, 1974; Modern Medicine Distinguished Achievement Award, 1975; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1980; American Book Award, for Medusa and the Snail, 1981; Association of American Physicians Kober Medal, 1983; American Association of Pathologists Gold Headed Cane Award, 1988; Albert Lasker Public Service Award, 1989; New York Academy of Science John Stearns Award for
Lifetime Achievement, 1991; honorary degrees from eight universities and colleges. Died (of Waldenström’s Disease) in New York, 3 December 1993.
Essays and Related Prose
The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974
The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1979
Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, 1983
The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher, 1983
The Wonderful Mistake: Notes of a Biology Watcher (includes The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail), 1988
Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher, 1990
A Long Line of Cells: Collected Essays, 1990
The Fragile Species, 1992
Gould, Stephen Jay, “Calling Dr. Thomas,” in his An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas, New York: Norton, and London: Penguin, 1987
Medawar, Peter, The Threat and the Glory: Reflections on Science and Scientists, edited by David Pyke, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and New York: HarperCollins, 1990
Nemerov, Howard, “Lewis Thomas, Montaigne, and Human Happiness,” in his New and Selected Essays, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985
Oates, Joyce Carol, “Beyond Common Sense,” New York Times Book Review, 26 May 1974:8–9
Rosenblatt, Roger, “Lewis Thomas,” New York Times Magazine, 21 November 1993:50– 53
Shiring, Joan, “Recommended: Lewis Thomas,” English Journal (December 1984):55– 56
Zinsser, William, editor, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, revised, enlarged edition, 1995 (original edition, 1987)
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