Lives of the fellows

Lewis Thomas

b.25 November 1913 d.? 1993
BS Princeton( 1933) MD Harvard( 1937) Hon MA Yale(1969) Hon ScD Rochester(1974) Hon ScD Princeton(1976) Hon LLD Johns Hopkins(1976) Hon LHD Duke(1976) Hon ScD Medical College of Ohio(1976) Hon LHD Reed College(1977) Hon ScD Columbia(1978) Hon ScD Memorial University of Newfoundland(1978) Hon ScD University of North Carolina(1978) Hon ScD Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology(1979) Hon LittD Dickinson College(1980) Hon LLD Trinity College( 1980) Hon LLD Ursinus(1981) Hon ScD Williams College( 1982) Hon Dmus New England Conservatory of Music (1982) Hon DLitt State University of New York (Stony Brook)(1983) Hon DHL New York University School of Medicine(1983) Hon ScD Connecticut College(1983) Hon ScD University of Wales(1983) FRCP(1983)

As a physician-scientist Lewis Thomas had an abiding interest in unravelling the pathogenesis of disease. At various times he held professorships in medicine and paediatrics as well as in pathology. His educational and administrative posts included periods as a dean at New York University, Belleview Medical School and Yale University. After he retired as president and chief executive officer of the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center his agile mind continued to explore the mysteries of biology as scholar-in-residence at Cornell University Medical College. He was a man of immense goodwill and boundless enthusiasm, and his death left a void in the fields of biology and medicine that will not easily be filled.

He was born in Flushing, New York, where his father was a physician, and received his early education at Princeton, graduating from Harvard Medical School. In addition to an immensely productive scientific life that led to nearly 250 publications - including research on such varied topics as endotoxins, the Schwartzman reaction and the sensory communication between mice according to their histocompatibility types - he built up elite scientific departments and was a role model for generations of young physicians and research workers. Many of his students achieved positions of leadership in American medicine and one, Baruj Benaceraff, was awarded the Nobel prize. In 1941 he married Beryl Dawson, daughter of a banker, and they had three daughters. He was assigned to the US Naval Medical Rescue Unit in 1942 and served throughout the Second World War with the rank of lieutenant commander.

An articulate spokesman for science, Thomas emphasized the need to foster and support the biological and physical sciences as a national imperative and he did so in a way which inspired his audience to appreciate the wonder and excitement of science as a human endeavour. His brilliant essays on biology and medicine earned him a reputation as an outstanding man of letters as well as of science and his writings have enriched the lives of countless people, young and old, being magical essays that not only inform but make us more optimistic about our troubled world. His book The lives of a cell: notes of a biology watcher (New York, Viking Press, 1974), was translated into eleven languages and received a national book award. His last book The fragile species was published in 1992 (New York, Scribner’s). A delightful and witty companion, his magnetic personality was irresistible and he had friends throughout the world. His hobbies and leisure pursuits included music, reading, science and writing.

A great Anglophile, Lewis Thomas spent time in Edinburgh and in Cambridge, where he was a visiting fellow of Clare Hall in 1981. He received most of the awards and honours applicable to his profession, including numerous honorary degrees. Being proud of his Welsh heritage, he took particular delight in his honorary ScD from the University of Wales.

In the USA, his long relationship with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, later University, was extremely precious to him. He first came to the Institute in 1942 as a visiting investigator and later served as a trustee of the University for 13 years. His extraordinary ability to span the humanities and the sciences led the Rockefeller Institute to create the Lewis Thomas prize in recognition of the scientist "whose voice and vision can tell us of science’s aesthetic and philosophical dimensions". Not surprisingly, Lewis Thomas was the first recipient of the "Lewis Thomas prize honouring the scientist as poet". Since that time a Lewis Thomas chair, supported by a two million US dollar endowment fund, has been approved by the board of trustees at Cornell University, New York City. In the spirit of its namesake, the chair will be open to people from all medical specialties. The plan is to make the resources of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center and Rockefeller University available to the visiting scholar.

A G Bearn

[Bull.Roy.Coll.Path., 1994,88,10-11]

(Volume X, page 488)

<< Back to List