Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Lives of a Cell is a collection of twenty-nine essays originally published in The New England Journal of Medicine between 1971 and 1973. The essays range in length from three to six pages but no more than two thousand words, a limitation imposed by the journal. In these essays, Lewis Thomas explores a variety of biomedical subjects, such as the social and medical implications if it turns out that humans possess pheromones, the role of technology in medical treatment, and the overreaction of the body to the invasion of bacteria. He also discusses issues of anthropology, the use of computers, the sociology of science, and the evolution and development of language. No explanation is provided for the order of the essays. They appear to be placed randomly, but they may be arranged chronologically.

Although written by a biomedical research scientist for a journal whose readership is composed primarily of physicians and biomedical researchers, these essays are not technical discussions of research but philosophical musings or commentaries upon science and medicine. Aside from the use of some technical terminology, the only other indication that Thomas’ original audience was composed of scientists and doctors is the occasional inclusion of reference notes to scientific literature. For eleven of the essays Thomas appended up to as many as ten reference notes.

The Lives of a Cell rests comfortably within the genre of literary science writing. This is a genre which flourished in the nineteenth century but has attracted relatively little attention in the twentieth. It has traditionally provided an opportunity for concerned scientists to express their views about the implications of scientific research for man, the environment, and civilization to audiences other than their professional colleagues. Strictly speaking, this genre is not a popularization of scientific facts and theories for general audiences, although such popularization may be incorporated into the writing.

Thomas’ thoughts are relatively accessible to the nonscientist. They are understandable without detailed knowledge of the biomedical sciences, in part because Thomas relies heavily on the use of analogies to convey his message. He also does not use the traditional impersonal tone and language of technical scientific literature. The most difficult of Thomas’ essays to follow and comprehend have nothing to do with the fields of either biology or medicine. They are the essays dealing with the derivation of words, a topic which is his hobby.

The Lives of a Cell Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bernstein, Jeremy. “Lewis Thomas: Life of a Biology Watcher,” in Experiencing Science, 1978.

Hellerstein, David. “The Muse of Medicine,” in Esquire. CI (March, 1984), pp. 72-77.

Lawrence, H. S. “An Appreciation: Notes of a Lewis Thomas-Watcher,” in Cellular Immunology. LXXXII (November, 1983), pp. 3-22.

Memory, J.D. “Lewis Thomas and William James,” in The New England Journal of Medicine. CCCXII (1985), pp. 864-865.

Woodcock, John. “Literature and Science Since Huxley,” in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. III (1978), pp. 31-45.