Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times science reporter, dies at 77
Thomas H. Maugh II, a Los Angeles Times science reporter with a doctorate in chemistry and a knack for quickly churning out complex front-page stories, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles after years of declining health. He was 77.
In his 26 years at The Times, Maugh helped readers make sense of the medical research their lives sometimes depended on.
He had an eye for the overlooked, reporting on the federal government’s chronic undercounting of new HIV infections and how a gold-standard test for detecting blocked arteries produced inaccurate results in women.
“He could write a science story about anything,” said Times science and medicine editor Karen Kaplan, noting his expertise in heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Maugh’s colleagues remember him as an unassuming leader, unflappable under pressure, with a dry sense of humor and, when he used it, a booming voice.
Rosie Mestel, who covered medicine with Maugh, described him as “quiet and incredibly generous.” Though he was a mainstay on the front page, “he didn’t have any ego,” she said.
He could take an “overwhelming tsunami of medical data and extract the one telling thing that best exemplified the news of the moment,” said former Times science reporter Robert Lee Hotz, who sat beside Maugh for more than a decade. “He had a scientist’s grasp of what he was covering.”
Born in Denver in 1943, Maugh grew up in St. Joseph, Mo. His father was a railroad and lumberyard worker, and his mother worked in a candy factory.
Maugh graduated from MIT in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in science and humanities and earned a second degree in chemistry the following year.
In California, while pursuing his PhD at UC Santa Barbara, he met his future wife, Kathy, a fellow graduate student.
“It was love at third or fourth sight,” Maugh wrote on Facebook last month, on their 54th wedding anniversary.
Before landing at The Times in 1985, Maugh reported on science for Chemical & Engineering News and Science magazine.
His first front-page story for The Times in 1986 was about the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed all seven crew members.
“So there it was, disaster in space, the fiery horror of failure,” he wrote. “America, first to the moon, would be left to scavenge for debris, to grieve and console, to question plans and purposes in the trembling aftermath of a fireball in the Florida sky.”
Maugh bowled for several competitive leagues, five nights a week, including with his family on Fridays. His name is engraved on plaques in bowling alleys across Los Angeles.
“He found his renaissance as a bowler,” his son, Todd, said.
In January 2003 in The Times, Maugh chronicled his attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open, a Professional Bowlers Assn. tour event.
“This has been the most humiliating week of my life,” began the last story in his five-part series. Maugh finished 313th in a field of 347 bowlers. “I’m home, loading up on ibuprofen,” he concluded. “But delusions never die. I can do better. Wait till next year.”
After retiring from The Times in 2011, Maugh sometimes built model World War II airplanes or went head to head with science deniers on Facebook.
Maugh is survived by his wife and sons Thomas H. Maugh III, Theodore E.D. Maugh and Todd Patrick Maugh, as well as three grandsons.
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