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...
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