Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
Lewis Thomas was one of the most important American essayists and science writers of the late twentieth century. He was the son of Dr. Joseph Thomas, a successful general practitioner who later became a surgeon, and Grace (Peck) Thomas, a nurse. Dr. Thomas often took his son Lewis along with him while he made house calls. In his memoir, The Youngest Science, Thomas describes growing up in a medical family at a time when a general practitioner was still expected to make house calls but, beyond accurate diagnosis, could do little to cure ordinary diseases. This therapeutic nihilism had gradually changed by World War II, with the discovery of penicillin, sulfadiazine, and other new miracle drugs. In his essays, Thomas traces the transformation of modern medicine into a clinical science through discoveries in immunology and biochemistry.
Thomas was a precocious student who skipped several grades, graduated from the McBurney School in Manhattan at the age of fifteen, majored in biology at Princeton University, and then entered Harvard Medical School in 1933. After completing his clinical training in neurology, pathology, and immunology, he married Beryl Dawson, in 1941 (they later had three daughters). He then served with the U.S. Navy as a virologist in the Pacific and afterward embarked on a brilliant career in biomedical research and administration. He served as dean of the New York University and the Yale University schools of medicine, and as chancellor of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York. For most of his career, Thomas was a medical researcher and administrator at the Rockefeller Institute, The Johns Hopkins University, Tulane University, the University of Minnesota, New York University and Bellevue Hospital, and Yale University. He became a successful essayist in his fifties almost by accident.
Though Thomas wrote some poetry as an undergraduate, and later published more than two hundred articles for professional journals, he only started writing essays for The New England Journal of Medicine in 1971. His monthly column there, “Notes of a Biology Watcher,” proved so successful that Viking Press published his first essay collection, The Lives of a Cell, in 1974. Much to Thomas’s surprise, it became a best-seller and won for him a National Book Award in 1975. Thomas continued writing for The New England Journal of Medicine until 1978, collecting additional essays for a second collection, The Medusa and the Snail. He appeared as a regular columnist for Discover magazine, publishing a third essay volume, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the same year as his memoir, The Youngest Science. Thomas indulged his passion for language in his next essay collection, Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher. In the introduction Thomas admits, “My sole qualification for writing these essays on (mostly) Indo-European roots is that I’ve been enchanted and obsessed by them for over twenty years. . . .” In The Fragile Species, Thomas’s last essay collection, he continues to share his eclectic concerns, ranging from the development of his profession to AIDS, aging, and his cat Jeoffry.
In his essays, Thomas employs an informal discursive style—brief, factual, witty, and optimistic. His mastery of the short essay form resulted from the editorial constraints on his monthly columns. One of Thomas’s recurrent themes throughout his essays is the importance of symbiosis, the tendency of organisms to link together to create mutually beneficial relationships. Partnerships are essential in nature, where everything is interdependent. Organicism is the root metaphor in Thomas’s writing, beginning with The Lives of a Cell. He imagines that Earth’s biosphere is an integrated whole, with the human community functioning as a kind of global nervous system. In The Medusa and the Snail, he argues that symbiosis and altruism are the driving forces behind this global cooperation, evident everywhere, from the ecology of the cell to the behavior of social insects to a multitude of host-parasite partnerships throughout nature. Nothing exists absolutely alone. The ultimate symbiont is planet Earth, seen by Thomas as a gigantic living cell, surrounded by a self-regulating atmosphere. In his third essay volume, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Thomas tempers his optimistic sense of the promise of science with an increased awareness of the risks of unrestrained militarism and the threat of nuclear war.
Thomas’s memoir, The Youngest Science, is divided between personal reminiscence and medical history, with the early chapters describing Thomas’s childhood and education and the later chapters recounting his medical career. In his discussion of the development of modern medicine, Thomas is preoccupied with the trade-offs between high-quality bedside care and high technology in the practice of medicine. The Whitney Museum has published a limited edition of Thomas’s poetry, Could I Ask You Something?, with illustrations by Alfonso Ossorio.
Et Cetera, Et Cetera further explores topics developed in earlier essays such as the human capacity for error and children’s remarkable capacity for learning language; it also documents what happens when Thomas lets himself loose in a room full of dictionaries. The Fragile Species is a collection and adaptation of various addresses and lectures given by Thomas from 1984 to 1990. It was the last collection he published prior to his death in 1993.
Perhaps Thomas’s most important accomplishment was his ability to reach a broad public audience, touching upon a wide range of scientific and general topics and using the concise, familiar essay form to articulate his unique personal vision. His literary success was and is an inspiration to other physicians and medical scientists to maintain the tradition of medical humanism in an age of overspecialization. He died of Waldenstrom’s disease a week after his eightieth birthday.
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