Blum, Deborah (Leigh) 1954-
BLUM, Deborah (Leigh) 1954-
PERSONAL: Born October 19, 1954, in Urbana, IL; daughter of Murray (an entomologist) and Ann (a legal scholar; maiden name, Hilpp) Blum; married Peter Haugen (a theater critic), September 25, 1982; children: Marcus, Lucas. Education: University of Georgia, B.A., 1976; University of Wisconsin, M.A., 1982.
ADDRESSES: Office—School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 5115 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Journalist and nonfiction writer. Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, CA, science writer, 1984-97; University of Wisconsin, Madison, journalism professor, 1997—. Scientific writer in residence, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1994. Member of advisory board of University of Georgia alumni magazine and of Media Resource Service; member of the Committee on Public Understanding of Science and Technology of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; member of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources of the National Research Council.
MEMBER: National Association of Science Writers (board of directors, president), Sigma Xi (honorary member).
AWARDS, HONORS: Livingston Award for young journalists (National Reporting), University of Michigan Department of Communication, 1987, for "California: The Weapons Master"; Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting, Westinghouse Award from American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), and Clarion Award for investigative reporting, all 1992, all for newspaper series "The Monkey Wars"; Best Sci-Tech Book, Library Journal, 1994, for The Monkey Wars; Sigma Delta Chi Award for non-deadline reporting, 1995, for newspaper series "Only Human"; Notable Book, New York Times, 1997, for Sex on the Brain; Best Book of the Year, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and finalist, Book Prize for the Science and Technology category, Los Angeles Times, all 2002, all for Love at Goon Park.
(Editor, with Mary Knudson) A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences between Men and Women, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, Perseus (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
Contributor to New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover, Psychology Today, Life, Health, Utne Reader, Mother Jones, and Discovery.com.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Nonfiction book on scientific ghost hunters at the turn of the twentieth century.
SIDELIGHTS: Deborah Blum is a prize-winning journalist, noted for her in-depth research and ability to construct an interesting and balanced story out of well-explained facts. Blum's 1994 volume The Monkey Wars, based on a series of journal articles for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, presents both sides of the heated debate on the use of animals in scientific testing. Her 1997 book Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences between Men and Women takes on the equally controversial topic of how men and women differ, based on the latest scientific evidence. In both books, "she handles her topics with scrupulous evenhandedness, and she's a good reporter," contended Ann Finkbeiner in the New York Times Book Review.
With her 2002 book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, Blum returns to a theme developed in The Monkey Wars—chronicling the life of a little-known psychologist, Harlow, whose rhesus monkey experiments in the 1950s stood on its head the prevailing wisdom about the role of love in primate development. Blum is, according to Booklist's Donna Seaman, a "confident, fluent, and entertaining science writer with a taste for controversial subjects."
Born in Illinois, Blum came from a family involved in academic pursuits: her father was an entomologist and her mother a legal scholar. Majoring in journalism at college, she also pursued a double minor in anthropology and political science. After working on newspapers in Georgia and Florida, she earned a master's in journalism and began to focus her writing on environmental issues. For fifteen years she was a journalist with California's Sacramento Bee, becoming that paper's first full-time science writer. Her stories during those years dealt with topics from mismanagement of the nuclear weapons labs in California and New Mexico to the AIDS epidemic, global warming, and chronic disease in the United States. In 1997 she joined the journalism faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Her first book-length publication, The Monkey Wars, received widespread praise for its evenhanded presentation of the positions taken by scientists and animal rights activists on the issue of using primates in medical and psychological testing. Frans B. M. de Waal observed in a review in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "[Blum] is generally extremely well-informed. Both sides no doubt view her account as biased against them, which will only go to show how balanced it really is." Critics noted that Blum quoted people who take extreme positions on either side of the issue, but also managed to find some who were willing to concede points to the other side. "Blum has written a beautifully balanced account of the major individuals and organizations involved" in this ongoing debate, according to William Beatty in Booklist.
The Monkey Wars covers the evolution of the use of animals in scientific experiments, from early methods now viewed as unnecessarily cruel to more recent uses, which exploit the biological proximity of apes and humans in pursuit of the cure for AIDS. The book also examines the effect animal rights activists have had on the conditions under which experiments are conducted on animals. Although Blum was sometimes faulted for a "cute style," in the words of James M. Jasper in Nature, or for failing to offer a viable solution to this ethical dilemma, she was praised for her unwavering focus on a difficult question, namely whether the benefit to humankind is worth the sacrifice of such human-like animals. "No comparable book on this topic exists," remarked de Waal, "and after reading it it is not hard to understand why there is so much polarization." Douglas H. Chadwick of the New York Times Book Review added that Blum "is a terrific reporter. She writes in a straightforward, informal style, never raising her own voice, and she is scrupulously fair about presenting all sides. Yet she arranges her scenes and quotations so deftly that we are often left more strongly moved than if she had used the space to deliver a jeremiad."
In Sex on the Brain, Blum utilizes the same approach to discuss the biology of gender, recounting findings from the latest genetic, hormonal, endocrinological, and neuroscientific studies that examine how, and sometimes why, men and women differ. If the "mating game" is really a "battle of the sexes," Blum aims to sort out which of these behaviors is a function of differences in the biology of the brains of men and women. She discusses behaviors that tend to ensure a proper mate is chosen, which aspects of male-ness and female-ness are genetically and which culturally encoded, and the differences in the structure and functioning of male and female brains. Throughout, Blum offers "superbly crafted science writing, graced by unusual compassion, wit and intelligence," according to Robert Lee Hotz in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Further, according to Finkbeiner, "she has a friendly, conversational tone that is relaxing without being chirpy, she writes clearly and accessibly, and the science is all there." Constance A. Rinaldo, however, found such a style "too cozy and loose," in a Library Journal review, though for a contributor to Publishers Weekly Blum displayed a "skilled journalist's ability to take abstract and confusing … findings and make them intelligible." Although some critics faulted the author's failure to choose sides on the issues she raises, others noted the importance of the author's stress on withholding judgment on questions that until recently have been so inadequately addressed by science.
Blum is also the editor, with Mary Knudson, of A Field Guide for Science Writers, a collection of thirty essays written by science writers, each of whom covers a different aspect of the field. In each, the author describes his or her arena of expertise and recounts how the particular career path was encountered. Mark L. Shelton, a reviewer for Library Journal, praised the book's comprehensive coverage of the field of professional science writing and recommended Blum and Knudson's work as "a valuable resource for current and would-be science writers."
Returning in 1997 to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she had earned her master's degree, but now as a professor, Blum focused on another onetime member of the faculty of that same institution. Harry Harlow conducted his famous research on baby rhesus monkeys in the 1950s and 1960s. Blum's "well researched account," as Barbara Smuts described the book in the New York Times Book Review, presents readers with a chronicle not only of Harlow's public and private life, but with the background for the scientific debate in which he had a deciding voice. In psychology during the first half of the twentieth century, the reigning belief system was behaviorism, in which everything in human development was supposedly determined by simple stimulus and response networks. The early work of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was instrumental in such a view, as was the work of the American John Watson. Such a theory posits that a baby's response to its mother is conditioned not by love but by a response to milk, à la Pavlov and his dogs. Blum further explains that, added to this theoretical position, was another movement in the early twentieth century spurred by mass infections that routinely killed vulnerable members of society such as children. In the days before antibiotics and vaccination, diseases such as cholera and diphtheria took such a heavy toll in orphanages that children in such institutions began to be "protected" against disease by being removed from adults who might spread contagion. This approach soon migrated from orphanages to the home, and parents were warned against close contact with their offspring.
At the same time, some physicians were discovering that some orphaned infants wasted away in sterile environments, devoid of human touch. Doctors argued that babies needed contact; the psychologists disagreed. Enter Harlow, whose early work included intelligence testing on rats. However, Harlow became interested in the debate over the importance of human contact in development and felt that research with monkeys could shed light on the question. He talked the University of Wisconsin into building a monkey lab for him, which had the address 600 N. Park; sloppy handwriting led to the inevitable nickname for the place, "Goon Park." Harlow designed the now classic experiment to test the behaviorist's theory that a baby responds to its mother simply because of milk. He removed newborn monkeys from their mothers and housed them in different rooms of the monkey lab. Some of these were put in rooms with surrogate mothers made of soft terry cloth; others were put with surrogates made of wire. When prodded with a strange stimulus, the babies with terry cloth mothers would run to these, seeking comfort, while those with wire mothers were transfixed with fear. Baby monkeys with wire mothers soon became listless and unhealthy, while the others developed normally. Harlow also "demolished behaviorism's claim that infant attachment depends on food," according to Smuts. When a baby rhesus monkey was given the choice between a milk-dispensing wire mother and a cloth mother with no milk, they invariably chose the latter. These were among the many important findings that Harlow came up with, others involving loss and development of depression as the result of isolation.
Blum shows in her biography that many of Harlow's concerns with monkeys were true in the psychologist's private life as well. Harlow was a loner from childhood on; a workaholic, he lost contact with his first wife and children because of neglect and fell into a depression relieved only by alcohol. A second marriage and another loss—his second wife died of cancer—sent him into such deep depression that only electroshock therapy could revive him. From these experiences, he developed an experiment with monkeys forced into isolation, then brought back to life with contact with a female monkey. Harlow was reviled by animal rights groups for such experiments; he was also found suspect by women's rights advocates for the conclusion his work drew: that babies would develop more healthily with abundant mother love. In other words, babies were better off when their mothers stayed at home rather than pursued a career.
Blum's biography was praised in many quarters. Nadine Weidman, writing in Isis, found the book to be a "very engagingly written, entirely sympathetic and admiring biography." Weidman further felt that Blum "certainly captured the drama and fascination of Harlow's life." Reviewing the book in the Skeptical Inquirer, Greg Martinez noted that "Blum skillfully charts Harlow's brave ascent in the scientific world, and his sad descent as his difficult personality ran afoul of the feminist movement." American Scientist's Carol Tavris wrote that Blum "shows in her superb biography … [that] it was Harry Harlow who opened American eyes to the importance of human affection." Tavris went on to comment that Blum's "invaluable story" is "utterly devoid of the psychobabble and posthoc psycho-dynamic reasoning that are the hallmarks of most journalists and many historians who attempt psychological biographies." Reviewing the biography in Antiquity, N. James dubbed it a "very good, engaging read on a troubling but critical topic," while Time's Michael Lemonick felt it was "thorough and beautifully written."
Other reviewers focused on Blum's evenhandedness. For Harper's Guy Davenport, Blum "is a splendid writer. She knows primatology inside and out, and, while not uncritical of Harlow, makes her case that he was an heroic and brave researcher." Mary Ann Gwinn, writing for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, similarly observed that Love at Goon Park "won't make you love Harry Harlow—indeed, Blum never succeeds in explaining what made a workaholic, alcoholic academic who neglected his own children hoist the standard of parental love and affection. But it will make you think." And Suzy Hansen, writing for Salon.com, concluded, "Blum's greatest feat—more so than having written the type of cultural history that tingles with the discovery of new ideas—is that you neither worship nor revile Harry Harlow….Youare humbled by his brilliant work, torn apart over his cruel methods and ultimately grateful to live, and love, in a post-Harlow age."
Blum once commented: "We live in a world transformed by science. Even more than the political events we report with such detail, the byproducts of research have radically altered our lives—and will continue to do so. I've always thought of myself as someone with a short attention span, so science is terrific fun to write about; it's always different, always new, always challenging. And because there's a little bit of a missionary in me, I also like to write about it because of what I said first. People need to know this stuff. It's a perilous world anyway and more so if you don't understand the forces that are changing it around you."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, March-April, 2003, Carol Tavris, "Deconstructing Harry," pp. 171-174.
Antiquity, December, 2002, N. James, review of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, p. 1136.
Booklist, October 1, 1994, William Beatty, review of The Monkey Wars, p. 189; August, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences between Men and Women, p. 1864; October 15, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of Love at Goon Park, p. 365.
Economist (U.S.), January 25, 2003, review of Love at Goon Park.
Harper's, November 2002, Guy Davenport, review of Love at Goon Park, pp. 71-72.
Isis, September, 2003, Nadine Weidman, review of Love at Goon Park, pp. 557-559.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 13, 2002, Mary Ann Gwinn, review of Love at Goon Park, p. K4579.
Library Journal, March 1, 1997, Mark L. Shelton, review of A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers, pp. 84, 86; July, 1997, Constance A. Rinaldo, review of Sex on the Brain, p. 117; November 1, 2002, Rita Hoots, review of Love at Goon Park, p. 124.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 20, 1994, Frans B. M. de Waal, review of The Monkey Wars, pp. 1, 7; September 7, 1997, Robert Lee Hotz, review of Sex on the Brain, p. 6.
Nature, November 17, 1994, James M. Jasper, review of The Monkey Wars, pp. 293-294.
New York Times Book Review, December 11, 1994, Douglas H. Chadwick, review of The Monkey Wars, pp. 15, 18; August 24, 1997, Ann Finkbeiner, review of Sex on the Brain, p. 13; February 2, 2003, Barbara Smuts, "No More Wire Mothers, Ever," p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, July 7, 1997, review of Sex on the Brain, p. 60; October 7, 2002, review of Love at Goon Park, p. 62.
Science News, November 16, 2002, review of Love at Goon Park, p. 319.
Skeptical Inquirer, September-October, 2003, Greg Martinez, "A Nuanced Biography of a Tragic Figure in Science," pp. 56-57.
Time, November 18, 2002, Michael Lemonick, "The Professor of Love," p. 138.
American Scientist Online, http://www.americanscientist.org/ (October 23, 2003), "The Bookshelf Talks with Deborah Blum."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (November 13, 2002), Suzy Hansen, review of Love at Goon Park.
University of Wisconsin Web site, http://www.journalism.wisc.edu/ (October 23, 2003), "Deborah Blum."*