Lewis R. Thomas; Biologist Wrote ‘The Lives of a Cell’


Lewis R. Thomas, who melded the scholarship of science and the romance of writing into an optimistic perception of man’s place in the universe, died Friday in a New York City hospital.

Lewis, a physician, poet, essayist and biologist often called “the poet laureate of 20th-Century medical science,” was 80 when he died of a rare form of lymph cancer. Called Waldenstrom’s disease, it is named for one of Thomas’ friends, Jan Waldenstrom of Sweden.

Born the son of a surgeon, he chose pathology as his medical specialty and devoted his life to studies ranging from natural phenomena in bodily cells to the social patterns of humankind.

At his death he had published dozens of essays and other literary works, the most popular of which was “The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher.” That 1974 book, which won a National Book Award, was considered among the most significant works of its time.


He also wrote poems for the New Yorker, about 200 articles for medical and scientific journals such as Science, Nature, Daedalus and the Saturday Review of Science and regularly wrote the column “Notes of a Biology Watcher” for the New England Journal of Medicine.

It was those columns that were published as “The Lives of a Cell.”

Time magazine found the collection filled with wit and imagination and a “bold, encouraging vision of both man and nature.” The Los Angeles Times credited Lewis with reactivating “the time-distinguished literary form of the pensees-- succinct commentaries in minuscule essay form which have not (recently) enjoyed an audience.”

In 1979, Thomas was given the American Book Award for “The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher.”


When he received the Albert Lasker Public Service Award in 1989, the Lasker jury said his writings “have converted countless non-scientists into appreciative spectators and supporters of biomedical research.”

He made dozens of other significant contributions to the study of various diseases while serving on the medical faculties of Johns Hopkins, New York University and Yale.

From 1973 to 1980, he was president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, one of the nation’s leading cancer institutions.

In 1986, he was honored by the Book-of-the-Month Club for “distinguished contributions to American letters.”


Lewis was sanguine about his accomplishments although somewhat embarrassed by his status as an author.

Noting that his books were collections of essays, he said, “It’s not really fair to have a book with a cover and everything when you never wrote a book, except in such little tiny bits.”

Despite his voluminous efforts to expand the realm of science, he once wrote, “The most solid piece of scientific truth I know of is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature.”

Born in New York, Thomas graduated from Princeton and the Harvard Medical School. He began writing in the early 1950s with papers on rheumatic fever and the effects of cortisone on infection, gradually moving into topics of more general interest.


“There’s really no such thing as the agony of dying,” Thomas said in a recent interview. “Something happens when the body knows it’s about to go. . . . Peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. Endorphins. They attach themselves to the cells responsible for feeling pain.”

Asked what dying felt like, Thomas replied, “Weakness. . . . I’m beginning to lose all respect for my body.”

He is survived by his wife, Beryl, and three daughters.