The Lives of a Cell Essay - Critical Context

Lewis Thomas

Critical Context

Because the art of writing literary expositions of scientific information has had few practitioners in the twentieth century, Thomas’ appearance on the literary scene provided some confusion in the ranks of the judges for the National Book Award in 1975. He was nominated by both the arts-and-letters and the sciences panels, an indication of how he straddles the boundary between the two. Ultimately, he received the award from the arts-and-letters panel.

It is not clear what sort of long-term impact will result from Thomas’ success with The Lives of a Cell. The book proved to be the first of a number of collections of his essays and autobiographical material to be published, each developing and expanding upon the themes of order in nature, the interconnectedness of all living things, and the problems of the medical system. It is not at all certain, for example, what impact he has had on the health industry in the United States. Perhaps Thomas’ greatest contribution has been to popularize the notion of the philosophical exposition of scientific ideas and theories by members of the scientific community. As a scientist who writes well and interestingly, Thomas has managed to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public, despite the fact that a lay audience was not his original concern. He presents biomedical and other scientific problems in a manner the public can understand.

In many ways, Thomas’ writings have been complemented by the work of Stephen J. Gould, another scientist-essayist. A paleontologist by training, Gould began providing philosophical and historical musings about science for the magazine Natural History two years after Thomas began publishing his essays. There are two major differences between these writers. First, the concern with issues of medical treatment so evident in Thomas’ pieces is missing in Gould’s writings. Second, Gould is much more interested in the history of science than is Thomas; Gould frequently uses history to illuminate issues in current scientific debates. Other scientists have turned to monographs or even television to place their perspectives toward research before the public. Thomas has made such efforts respectable.