Earl Ubell, 80; journalist covered significant science and health breakthroughs

Washington Post

Earl Ubell, a journalist who covered the leading health and science breakthroughs of the postwar age with a lively and effective style, died Wednesday at a nursing facility in Englewood, N.J. He was 80 and had Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

Ubell, who had a physics degree, first came to prominence as science editor at the New York Herald Tribune from 1953 until the paper folded in 1966. His columns regularly appeared in the Los Angeles Times from 1959 until 1966. While at the Herald Tribune, he won a prestigious Albert Lasker medical journalism award for his series of articles about heart attacks.

He later became a science reporter and news director at New York network TV affiliates and spent many years simultaneously as health editor at Parade magazine.

He also wrote several books for juveniles and one aimed at adults called “How to Save Your Life” (1973).

Writing about science, Ubell constantly faced a dilemma — how to convey information to lay readers as well as editors who tended to view health and medical coverage as a necessary but often incomprehensible, jargon-filled subject.

This attitude was perhaps best exemplified by a Herald Tribune city editor who once said, “Anything that ends in ‘ology’ we give to Earl.”

His stories often tended to resemble features instead of hard news. He began his front-page account of the first Sputnik flight in October 1957 this way: “Our planet has a new moon tonight.” This is often cited as one of his best opening lines, which he considered amusing because the story itself was cobbled together at the last minute.

When the news broke, Ubell was at a conference at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, honoring the International Geophysical Year.

He immediately went about the conference asking Soviet scientists and bureaucrats about the space launch.

Richard Kluger wrote in a history of the Herald Tribune that Ubell “dashed to the Tribune bureau and without clips or supporting data at his fingertips wrote up one of the big stories of the century mostly out of his head.”

While at the Herald Tribune, Ubell interviewed physicist Albert Einstein and wrote about Jonas Salk’s work on the polio vaccine, James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA and Alfred Kinsey’s research on human sexual behavior.

Besides winning a 1957 Lasker Award for his reporting, he received a journalism prize from the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in 1960 for a story about theoretical astrophysicist Thomas Gold’s work on steady-state theory that tried to explain the universe’s origin and continuous creation.

Earl Ubell was born June 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Russian Jewish immigrants. He joined the Herald Tribune as a messenger in 1943, then rejoined the staff as a reporter after returning from Navy service during World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from City College of New York in 1948.

As a newspaperman, he became an authority on X-ray crystallography, a technique to view atomic and molecular structures, and was invited to study at Nobel laureate Linus Pauling’s lab at Caltech. He later worked for brief periods at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Ubell told Kluger his lab work “was an invaluable way of understanding what drives” scientists.

Besides a stint in the mid-1970s as news director at WNBC-TV, he spent the remainder of his career as science editor at WCBS-TV. He retired in 1995, having completed a two-part series about his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

He was a former president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. With his wife, he co-founded the Center for Modern Dance Education, a nonprofit community arts school near his home in Hackensack, N.J.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Shirley Leitman Ubell of Hackensack; two children, Lori Ubell of Portland, Ore., and Michael Ubell of Oakland; three brothers, and three stepsisters.