Lewis Thomas

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Thomas, Lewis

(b. 25 November 1913 in New York City; d. 4 December 1993 in New York City), physician, scientist, administrator, and essayist, whose collection of “biology-watching” essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), won a National Book Award.

Lewis Thomas was born in Flushing, Queens, the fourth child and first of two sons of Joseph Simon Thomas, a physician, and Grace Emma Peck, a nurse. Thomas often accompanied his father on house calls to patients, observing the physician’s work life and learning the extent to which medicine in the early twentieth century was tentative and intuitive rather than definitive and knowledgeable. He developed two lifelong traits, empathy and curiosity, which directed him toward medicine as both practitioner and researcher and later emerged in his literary writing.

At the age of fifteen Thomas graduated from the McBurney School, a private day school in Manhattan. He received a B.S. degree in biology from Princeton University in 1933, graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1937, interned for two years at Boston City Hospital, and completed his residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in 1941. That year he and Beryl Dawson were married in January; they had three daughters.

As a medical officer in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, Thomas researched infectious diseases on Guam and Okinawa. Following his discharge he took a series of positions in medical schools at Johns Hopkins University (1946–1948), Tulane University (1948-1950), the University of Minnesota (1950-1954), and New York University (1954–1966), where he served as dean of the School of Medicine (1966-1969). He moved to the Yale University School of Medicine in 1969 and served as its dean from 1972 to 1973. Thomas then joined the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he was president and chief executive officer (1973-1980), chancellor (1980-1983), and finally president emeritus in 1983.

Even as an administrator Thomas remained active as a researcher. He published more than 200 scientific articles on such subjects as endotoxins, virology, and infectious diseases. The New York University dean Dr. Saul Farber described him as “the father of modern immunology and experimental pathology.” His contributions to medical science led to a number of awards and honors, including the 1983 Association of American Physicians Kober Medal, the 1986 dedication of Princeton University’s molecular biology facility as the Lewis Thomas Laboratory, and the first John Stearns Award for Lifetime Achievement in Medicine from the New York Academy of Medicine in 1991.

While scientific and medical honors accumulated, Thomas also established himself as a literary essayist. From 1971 to 1980 Thomas contributed a monthly column, “Notes of a Biology Watcher,” to the New England Journal of Medicine. The popularity of the column beyond the medical community led to the compilation of a book, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), which was both a popular and a critical success and won the National Book Award for arts and letters that year. A second collection from the column, The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), won the Christopher Award and the American Book Award for Science. After shifting his column to Discover magazine in 1980, he published a third collection, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983). His other writing included a memoir in The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher (1983), poetry in Could I Ask You Something? (1985), essays on language in Et Cetera, et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher (1990), and articles and addresses in The Fragile Species (1992).

The Lives of a Cell won the National Book Award after being nominated by both the arts and letters panel and the science panel, a situation that points to Thomas’s unique position as both scientist and writer. He wrote gracefully, even lyrically, often linking scientific and medical issues to social and philosophical issues. He emphasized the inter-connectedness of life, using as examples the symbiotic presence of mitochondria in every human cell and the interdependent life cycles of the medusa jellyfish and the nudibranch snail. On the return of astronauts from the moon he asserted in an essay in Lives of a Cell, “Most of the associations between the living things we know about are essentially cooperative ones, symbiotic in one degree or another. . . . Every creature is, in some sense, connected to the rest.” In Late Night Thoughts he described the earth as “a living system, an immense organism, still developing, regulating itself, … keeping all its infinite parts connected and interdependent, including us.” Some critics found this perspective too optimistic, though Thomas was capable, as in his essays on thermonuclear destruction, of a grimness close to despair. His thorough scientific grounding made his arguments for organicism, the view of the whole earth as a living membrane, seem less a kind of mystical wishful thinking and more a rational and expansive interpretation of evidence.

Thomas’s essays, particularly in the later collections, drew on the example of Montaigne by exploring and exposing the workings of the writer’s mind. Perhaps in line with his own view of the interconnectedness of things, his essays demonstrated the ability of a scientific specialist to communicate to a general readership about matters that were both narrowly technical and broadly relevant. Many of his awards and honors were for his ability to be at the same time a sharply focused scientist and a richly communicative writer, simultaneously bringing science out of the laboratory into the larger community and bringing the larger community into the laboratory.

In 1988 Thomas was diagnosed with Waldenström’s disease, a rare form of cancer. He died at age eighty at New York Hospital in Manhattan on 4 December 1993.

Lewis Thomas, The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher (1983), mixes autobiography with medical history. Andrew J. Angyal, Lewis Thomas (1989), is the only book-length biographical-critical study of his writing. Profiles include Jeremy Bernstein, “Lewis Thomas: Life of a Biology Watcher,” in Experiencing Science (1978), and Roger Rosenblatt, “Lewis Thomas,” New York Times Magazine (21 Nov. 1993). Significant articles on his literary nonfiction include Howard Nemerov, “Lewis Thomas, Montaigne, and Human Happiness,” in New and Selected Essays (1985); Steven Weiland, “? Tune Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves’: Medical Science and Lewis Thomas,” Michigan Quarterly Review 24 (spring 1985); Chris Anderson, “Error, Ambiguity, and the Peripheral: Teaching Lewis Thomas,” in Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy (1989); and Alison R. Byerly, “Lewis Thomas (1913-1993)” in American Nature Writers (1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Dec. 1993).

Robert L. Root, Jr.

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