Lewis Thomas: “His essays mixed facts about the human body with thoughts about the connectedness of man and the universe.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas. He’s the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983), and Late Night Thoughts on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1984).

When Thomas entered Princeton in 1929, his interest was biological research with the hope of increasing the effectiveness of treatment. His other great interest was the poetry of Pound and Eliot.

During World War II, he did field research on typhus and encephalitis for the U.S. Navy. He landed with the Marines during the invasion of Okinawa carrying a special case full of laboratory white mice. In 1973, became president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City.

He had written or co-written more than 200 scientific articles, but it was his series of short essays that was receiving attention. His essays were loosely modeled on the essays of Montaigne. The series had been appearing on the back pages of The New England Journal of Medicine since 1971 as informal essays.

Thomas wrote late at night, quickly and without an outline. He addressed his readers as friends in a conversation, and he included no reference notes at the end. His essays mix facts about the human body with personal meditation and thoughts about the connectedness of man and the universe.

In 1974, Viking Press collected 29 of the essays as they had appeared in The Lives of a Cell, which was awarded the National Book Award in 1975, nominated in both the arts and the sciences categories but finally selected for arts and letters. Within five years, it had been translated into 11 languages and sold more than 250,000 copies.

Lewis Thomas said: “The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.”

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