Max, D.T. (Daniel T. Max)

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Max, D.T. (Daniel T. Max)


Born in New York, NY; married; children: two. Education: Harvard University, graduated 1984.


Home—Washington, DC.


Writer, journalist, and editor. New Yorker and New York Times Magazine, reporter, 1999—. Worked as a book editor and a book review editor.


The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, Random House (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to books, including The Best American Science Writing 2006. Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Observer.


D.T. Max is a journalist and science writer whose first book, The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, examines a variety of inexplicable, often fatal medical conditions that have so far defied attempts to cure or even successfully treat them. The book, a "gracefully written medical detective story, explores the mysteries of fatal familial insomnia, their eventual decoding, and the strange history of one family," commented William Grimes in the New York Times. Fatal familial insomnia, or FFI, is a neurodegenerative disease that has affected one particular Italian family for well over two centuries. Max has traced the disease to its probable first victim, a doctor in Venice who died in 1765, Grimes noted. Since then, the disease has been misdiagnosed in numerous cases. Little is known about FFI's cause, nor have there been any advances toward a treatment or cure. The effects of the disease, however, are well documented. The disease first manifests itself during middle age. Symptoms include profuse sweating, loss of appetite, impotence, constipation, sudden onset of menopause, and the complete inability to sleep. Under the stress of sleep deprivation, the victim's bodily systems suffer great damage and begin to fail; worse, however, is the fact that the individual remains fully aware of what is happening but unable to do anything about it. Approximately fifteen months after onset, the sufferer falls into a coma-like state and dies. With his work, Max has "crafted a powerfully empathetic account of their efforts to make sense of their suffering and find a cure," remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor. In Max's estimation, FFI could very well be the "worst disease in the world," noted Natalie Angier in the New York Times Book Review.

With his discussion of FFI as his base, Max branches out into discussion of other mysterious diseases, many of which leave scientists and medical professionals baffled. He covers conditions such as mad cow disease, a neurodegenerative disease of cattle which may be transferable to humans; scrapie, a neurological disorder that afflicts sheep; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative brain condition that results in memory loss, physical deterioration, and death; the "laughing death," a condition that afflicted New Guinea natives who practiced cannibalism; and more. Max investigates a suspected cause of such diseases: prions, an abnormally folded protein that adheres to other proteins and causes additional folding, resulting in disease. Prions defy traditional theories of infection; since they are not living and contain no genetic material, scientists originally thought they could not infect. Current research, however, suggests that it is the abnormal structure and damaging effects of the prions that cause disease. "Max is the latest of many excellent writers who have reported on prions, but his book is probably the most gripping and sympathetic," commented Laurence A. Marschall in Natural History.Booklist reviewer David Pitt remarked that the book is "too unsettling and scary" to be classified as "entertaining," but concluded that "it's certainly very timely and compellingly written."



Booklist, September 1, 2006, David Pitt, review of The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, p. 32.

Natural History, February, 2007, Laurence A. Marschall, review of The Family That Couldn't Sleep, p. 48.

New York Times, September 2, 2006, William Grimes, "Books of the Times: Tracing the Strange History of a Family with a Mysterious, Incurable Disease," review of The Family That Couldn't Sleep, p. 14.

New York Times Book Review, October 8, 2006, Natalie Angier, "A Sickness unto Death," review of The Family That Couldn't Sleep, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, July 31, 2006, review of The Family That Couldn't Sleep, p. 69.


D.T. Max Home Page, (April 2, 2007).