Lewis Thomas (25 November 1913 - 3 December 1993)

Dictionary of Literary Biography:
Volume 275: Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers: Prose
Do not download without permission from the author [awood@vcu.edu]

Ann Woodlief
Virginia Commonwealth University


The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Viking Press, 1974.
The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Viking Press, 1979.
The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. New York: Viking Press, 1983.
Could I Ask You Something? New York: Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1985.
Et Cetera Et Cetera: Notes of a Word Watcher. New York: Little, Brown, 1990.
The Fragile Species. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.

Few physicians in the 20th century have been able to bridge the gap between science and literature as well as Lewis Thomas, who spent most of his illustrious medical career as a researcher and administrator. The short essays which he began writing "for fun" in 1971 established him as a serious writer of prose who combined his knowledge and insights into science, especially microbiology and immunology, with meditative reflections on nature and the human body in a style widely recognized as clear, graceful and witty.

Lewis Thomas was born in 1913 in Flushing, New York to a family physician and his nurse wife. He was fascinated by his father's profession, and it became a baseline for his later understanding of the dramatic changes, not always good ones in his opinion, in the practice of medicine in the twentieth century. He entered Princeton at 15 where he was an average student, but he developed an interest in poetry and literary humor, writing much "good bad verse," as he described it, for the Princeton Tiger, which showed primarily his sense of humor about undergraduate life but no particular interest in the natural world.

He was admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1933, at the time when medicine was changing dramatically into a clinical science and antibiotics would soon be developed. During his internship at Boston City Hospital he supported himself by donating blood and publishing a dozen poems in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, and the Saturday Evening Post. Most of these lyrical poems were about medical experiences, death, and war. He completed a residency in neurology at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and married Beryl Dawson, whom he later called his editorial collaborator, in 1941.

He began his medical career as research fellow in neurology at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratories. He was called for service in 1942 with the Naval Reserve as a medical researcher assigned to the Pacific. After the war he went to Johns Hopkins to practice pediatrics and conduct research on rheumatic fever. His developing interest in immunological defense mechanisms became the base of his later research; he would later write a long essay on it, "On Disease," in The Medusa and the Snail

In 1948 Thomas went to Tulane University as a researcher in microbiology and immunology. He was noted for his creativity and ability to generate original hypotheses. In 1950 he joined the University of Minnesota to continue his research on rheumatic fever. In He became head of the pathology department at New York University Medical School in 1954, where over the next fifteen years he helped transform immunology into a clinical science and built unusually collaborative and interdisciplinary research teams. He would also chair the Department of Medicine at Bellevue Hospital. He became Dean of the NYU School of Medicine, beginning an administrative career. However, he never abandoned his clinical and research concerns, and moved to Yale in [1972] to continue research in the pathogenesis of mycoplasma diseases [and was soon named as Dean of Yale Medical School].

In 1973 Thomas became president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, leading it into prominence in international cancer research, treatment, and education, suspending his research work. . He was called "the father of modern immunology and experimental pathology" at a symposium held in his honor in 1982. He received numerous honors and awards for his medical research and writing, being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961 and the National Academy of Science in 1972. In 1986 the Lewis Thomas Laboratory at Princeton was dedicated.

In 1971, while Thomas was chairman of the Department of Pathology at the Yale Medical School, his friend Dr. Franz Ingelfinger, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine , asked him to write a monthly essay, called "Notes of a Biology Watcher." Each essay would be about 1000 words, filling a page of the Journal; there would be no pay, but there would also be no editing of his work. That was a deal that Thomas said he could not resist.

Thomas had written or co-written over two hundred scientific articles at that point, but he was eager to try the informal essay, loosely modeled on the essays of Montaigne. As he would say in The Youngest Science, he cherished this opportunity to break away from the "relentlessly flat style required for absolute unambiguity in every word" of scientific writing. His method was to write late at night, without outline and quickly, usually shortly after the deadline. He gradually developed a personal and engaging style and a range of subjects, both scientific and non-scientific. Like most nature writing, the essays generally mix natural facts, generally of the human body rather than wilderness or landscape, with personal meditation and a vision of the integral connectedness of man and the universe. He continued to write these essays for the Journal for ten years. These and later essays would be collected and published for the rest of his life.

In 1974, Viking Press collected twenty-nine of the essays, exactly as they had appeared, in The Lives of a Cell. This gave readers the opportunity to see the development of his essay style and voice. The first and title essay in the book, often reprinted in prose anthologies as a model of literary prose, sets the tone and recurring themes of the essays. Here he builds on the analogy between the workings of the cell and the workings of the earth and its lives, including man's. He finds the earth "the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death" and man as '"the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia," "embedded in nature" and not the master of it that he pictures himself to be. We are not separate entities so much as interdependent, sharing our very cells with separate creatures such the mitochondria. He concludes that the earth is cannot be called an organism because of its invisible complexities, yet it can be compared to a single cell

Many of his essays, in this book and others, elaborate this idea of interconnectedness, based on his clear explanations of scientific and medical insights. He teaches readers not only about microbiology but how these scientific discoveries can illumine their understanding of an earth in which all beings work collaboratively and interdependently toward what he hopes will be a better world in all senses. Thus the idea of the essential unity of living things, so often sentimentalized into banality, becomes compelling, based not on generalities but on his intimate understanding of how details of cellular biology and immunology can metaphorically reflect human and cosmic realities, both physical and social.

The book includes a great variety of topics. He contemplates the possibilities of extraterrestrial life as he thinks about space exploration. The activity of termite nests is compared to medical conventions, which are much less efficient and collaborative. He considers how we might communicate with our pheromones. Music, one of Thomas's great interests which reappears often in later essays, is the basis for an essay on sounds in nature and a quantitative model of thermodynamic theory.

Another favorite subject is the value of admitting to ignorance before acting precipitously. He proposes that before we start doing anything drastic to alter the environment, such as nuclear warfare, that we determine to understand fully the workings of a single form of life. In "An Ernest Proposal," his candidate for this study, which would take at least ten years, is a protozoan in the digestive tract of Australian termites, a model of collaboration we humans need to learn from.

This book also shows the broad range of Thomas's interests and knowledge. He frequently turns to classical music and language, especially the etymology of key words, to find analogies for order and evolution of ideas. He believes that "rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else--an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate random matter in chaos into the improbably ordered dance of living forms." ("The Music of This Sphere") Likewise, words, like "stigmergy," fascinate him because of their "deeply seated, immutable meaning, often hidden, which is the genotype." ("Living Language")

Combining the microscopic and the human is typical of his essays. He is fascinated with technological developments in medicine, but worries in several essays that basic research may consequently be getting too little attention. Other subjects which reappear in later essays include meditations on aging and dying and human paranoia about germs

The final essay, "The World's Biggest Membrane," returns to the premises of the first essay, as he contemplates photographs of the earth from space: "Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos." He goes beyond the famous photographs by comparing the atmosphere to the cell membrane: "To stay alive, you have to be able to hold out against equilibrium, maintain imbalance, bank against entropy, and you can only transact this business with membranes in our kind of world." .He develops this analogy as he describes the evolution of the sky, as "far and away the grandest product of collaboration in all of nature." As in most of his essays, such generalities come to life because he can present so clearly the scientific understandings which underlie them.

It is clear that these essays were written for a general scientific audience, for Thomas is precise in his scientific details and topics, and he offers reference notes for each essay at the end. Yet they are also literary, almost poetic at points, with their explorations into metaphor and image. Although Thomas's voice is present, he has not fully developed persona and voice as he would later. But the loose, almost intuitive but focused organization of his essay format was established.

Perhaps the best description of Thomas's prose style comes from poet Howard Nemerov who finds the essays are "organized on a sort of musical contrapuntal model, something like a passacaglia with melodic variations played over a more or less constant progression in the ground." An idea that might baffle the reader on a first reading would come up again, with "new angles" and "new applications. He notes the "easy and authority of the style," and, of course, the learning and information.

The Lives of a Cell was well received, and had multiple printings to the present day; within five years it had been translated into eleven languages and sold over 250,000 copies. American reviews were enthusiastic, with Joyce Carol Oates praising his "effortless, beautifully style." Like many other reviewers, she lauded him for transcending and uniting scientific information with a larger vision of man's place in nature. Reviewers particularly noted Thomas's wisdom and optimism; John Updike balked at Thomas's "altruistic view of nature" yet he applauded his "shimmering vision of hope." The book was awarded the National Book Award in 1975, being nominated in both the arts and the sciences categories but finally selected for arts and letters.

Lewis Thomas's second book was another collection of twenty-nine of his New England Journal of Medicine essays published in 1979 as The Medusa and the Snail : More Notes of a Biology Watcher. This book would receive the American Book Award and the Christopher Award.

Thomas's success with his first book increased his authorial confidence, and there are more personal anecdotes and a compelling presence in this volume. Thomas had read the essays of Montaigne for the previous eight years, becoming more comfortable with the essay genre. His readers are now addressed as friends in a conversation, not as scientific colleagues, although his cool reason and interest in science definitely distinguish him from Montaigne. There are no reference notes at the end.

These are essays not about Thomas as a person but about his topics, generally based in science, and the friendly but reserved voice of common sense and gentle humor permeates his readable style and economical use of language. He fits Emerson's description of the ideal scholar as "Man thinking," and these essays definitely show a mind in motion, as Lewis converses with his readers on many subjects of broad and current interest.

The title essay is a meditation on uniqueness and "selfness" in which he wrestles with the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the nudibranch and the medusa which sustains the life of each creature. He concludes in bewilderment: "I cannot get my mind to stay still and think it through." Indeed, the restless mind which cannot reach clean and rational conclusions as it plays with the possibilities and wonders of nature and their human analogies is what gives his essays their special character.

In "The Tucson Zoo, a moment of non-scientific but intense connection with beavers and otters leads him to think about the possibility of being genetically endowed with altruism. He then questions whether ants, working as a "single huge creature" can think, what sort of thought that might be, and whether such an event makes a single ant's hair "stand on end." Thus Thomas confronts a paradox which he explores repeatedly: the coexistence of individuality and symbiotic unity in nature.

The essay also demonstrates the intuitive structure of his essays, as one never knows exactly where a Thomas essay might lead as his mind jumps between resemblances and comparisons. But it will be an experience in thinking which, as he explains in "On Thinking about Thinking," can be best understood through music, "the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work," especially in the fugues of Bach.

Thomas takes special delight in mistakes and ignorance, suspecting that the secret of life, especially in evolution, is related to blunder and imperfection. In an essay on cloning, he notes that an identical world would eliminate "new, natural, spontaneous, random, chancy children." He advises, with his humor, optimism and wisdom: "Look for ways to get mutations more quickly, new variety, different songs. Fiddle around, if you must fiddle, but never with ways to keep things the same, no matter whom, not even yourself. Heaven, somewhere ahead, has got to be a change." As he asserts in "To Err is Human," mistakes and random errors, even in computers, are the basis for human progress.

Medicine and medical education provide topics for four essays, and Thomas is always alert to hazards and unrealistic expectations of medical science. Human hubris real, yet he sees every reason for humans to continue to gather and study information. The most technical essay in the volume is "On Disease," where Thomas presents his favorite theory of disease as more of a flawed response of the body's immune system than an invasion of foreign pathogens.

In this volume Thomas acknowledges his debt to Montaigne in "Why Montaigne is Not a Bore." Much of what he appreciates can be found in his own essays, especially in their conversational tone and their optimism. Like Montaigne, Thomas does not pose and he is at times both moralist and humorist. But Thomas would disagree that "the nearest and most engrossing item in all of Nature is Montaigne"; for him the fascination lies in Nature and man's inescapable and symbiotic connection with it, even at the cellular level. He concludes, however, that "if Montaigne is an ordinary man, then what an encouragement, what a piece of work is, after all, an ordinary man! You cannot help but hope." As E. O. Wilson declared on the dust jacket of the book, "if Montaigne had possessed a knowledge of twentieth-century biology, he would have been Lewis Thomas."

His next book, The Youngest Science: Notes on a Medicine-Watcher, fits the category of "nature writing" primarily because it is the autobiography of a man exploring his relationship to science, medicine, and language. This book shows Thomas as a remarkable human being, knowledgeable in many areas, humane and generous, articulate and at times poetic, with a gentle humor and inbred optimism. His personal and professional evolution, presented modestly in this book, is of special interest to readers curious about the origins of his literary voice, derived more from his life and training than from any specifically literary source.

Thomas does not probe inner dramas of his own psyche, unlike Montaigne, as he reminisces about his life. But he is constantly amazed at how he has been able to learn from his own ignorance and questions, and how lucky he has been. He teaches much about the development and problems of modern medicine through his personal witness from the front lines of change. He begins with affectionate descriptions of his parents--his father practicing medicine necessarily more as art than science from his home, and his mother, an unpaid nurse working with him in this family enterprise which took much time but returned little money. As he describes his own progression through the field of medicine, he focuses primarily on his research and the dramatic therapeutic changes coming from basic research.

It is not until the final chapter of The Youngest Science that Thomas talks about his essays, and that is primarily to describe what began this "habit." His essays are more enlightening about why and how he writes; here, after briefly noting favorable reviews and letters, he discusses criticisms from other scientists. He pleads guilty to a native optimism even as he writes about the "bad dreams" of modern life. He is drawn to the Gaia thesis, and concludes that "the conjoined life of the planet not only comprises a sort of organism but succeeds in regulating itself, maintaining stability in the relative composition of the constituents of its atmosphere and waters, achieving something like the homeostasis familiar to students of conventional complex organisms, man himself for example." He admits that his perspective may be "panglossian," but he insists that "This is in real life the best of all possible worlds, provided you give italics to that word possible." He goes on, however, to say, "I am not so optimistic about us ... I would not lay heavy odds on our survival unless we begin maturing some."

It is this darker analysis of the human condition which underlies another book Thomas published in the same year, Late Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. These twenty-four essays had been published in Discover, the New York Review of Books and the New England Journal of Medicine in the early 1980s. They are more political and somber because Thomas confronts the threat of nuclear holocaust and the diversion of monies for scientific research into "Star Wars" defenses.

Thomas's customary voice of learned geniality is generally missing in this book. He is angry about the possibility of nuclear war and the nationalism which divides humans and is "probably the most stupefying example of biological error since the age of the great reptiles, wrong at every turn, but always felicitating itself loudly. " He is also indignant to see billions of dollars going to thermonuclear missiles in silos and military-oriented research rather than true scientific research.

Death itself, as a natural process, has been a frequent subject of his essays. "Death in the Open" in The Lives of a Cell asserts the "natural marvel" that "All of the life of the earth dies, all of the time, in the same volume as the new life that dazzles us each morning, each spring." He urges us not to think of death as catastrophe but as cycling; "Everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies, cell for cell. There might be some comfort in the recognition of synchrony, in the formation that we all go down together, in the best of company." But he was not thinking of the synchrony of mass destruction of man and nature at the time.

Even music, so often a source of pleasure and analogies, fails to comfort Thomas as he contemplates the possible death of the earth, as the final title essay reveals. Mahler's Ninth Symphony, in which he once heard "an open acknowledgment of death and at the same time a quiet celebration of the tranquillity connected to the process," now brings to mind "death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity." He can only see images of bombs destroying many loved places. It is not his own death that he cannot abide so much as the death of nature.

The other essays in the book remind readers that Thomas has always stood on moral grounds, although rarely as directly as here. The first essay, "The Unforgettable Fire," sets the pace as he thinks about so-called "acceptable nuclear damage" and two books on the bombings of Japan, The Unforgettable Fire and Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings.

The increasing connections between government, the military, technology, science, and medicine disturb Thomas greatly in other essays, for they violate the necessary symbiotic connections between humans and nature. Even the essays on other subjects, such as "Altruism," insist that biological altruism is a necessity, for without acknowledging "family ties and, with them, the obligations," we will pay the heaviest of prices: "If we do it wrong, scattering pollutants, clouding the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide, extinguishing the thin carapace of ozone, burning up the forests, dropping the bombs, rampaging at large through nature as though we owned the place, there will be a lot of paying back to do and, at the end, nothing to pay back with."

Age, knowledge, and experience have entitled Thomas to take to his moral pulpit in this book. He has not lost his fascination with the workings of nature and what they show us about ourselves, but his optimism has been tested. As he looks into an uncertain future, he concludes that he is grateful that he is not young, for then he "would give up listening and reading" and "begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before" and "twisting and turning to rid myself of human language." Like many nature writers, he was increasingly cynical about how humans define and treat nature, and looked to music to transcend the limits of language.

In 1985 Thomas published a slim volume of poetry, Could I Ask You Something? This was a limited edition of 14 poems, illustrated by original etchings of Alfonso Ossorio, what Thomas called a combination of "Surrealism and biology." These free verse poems are lyrical meditations with a first-person voice, rephrasing the ideas of his essays. Although too discursive to be great poetry, they do show his "unbounded aesthetic appreciation of the beauty and vitality of life." (Angyal, 103).

Thomas's next book, Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word Watcher, is an exploration of language. Although many of his earlier essays had touched on etymology, only one of the essays in this volume had been previously published. Here are the results of his twenty year fascination with the language and etymology, an passion evidently shared with his wife Beryl to whom he credits many of the ideas of the essays.

Thomas's fascination with etymology is reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau's; both are convinced that a word's history is still buried in its meaning. However, Thomas sees analogies with the development of the living cell, which carry the biochemical traces of their microbial forebears, the symbiont mitochondria (see "The Art and Craft of Memoir" in The Fragile Species). As he says, "the earliest, antique feeling of certain roots persists, whether consciously perceived or not, inside some words, vibrating there alive, carrying the old significance into the depths of each new generation of cognates emerging in any language. Some words [like cells] contain genetic markers."

These are not essays written by a linguist but by someone who collects dictionaries of etymology and find strange collusions and connections in words. These short essays often take unexpected directions. For example, chapter 40, "Testament, Third Party, Gaia etc.," begins with a reflection on being unable to remember information stored in his brain, brought on by a visit to his lawyer about his will. In the word testament he finds testis, or witness, which reminds him of his own witness that "the earth is a living organism, of greater size but probably no more complexity than any other attested biological organism, including our own human cells."

This leads to a discussion of the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a "living, self-regulating being," which he declares is "a central, plain fact of life." He considers how talk and human society are part of the reproduction of Gaia, an argument that brings him back to the crucial role of language and the root bheu (being) which becomes "phuein, to bring forth and make grow, becoming phusis, live nature itself, then phutos, as plant" and eventually physics, future, bondage, tree. He then traces gen (to give birth) into pregnant, nature, kin, kindness, gentle, generation, and at the end of a long list, generous.

Thomas's habitual optimism is tinged by the disorder he acknowledges in the world (threat or "a crowd or crush of people") and he asserts that humans need time to grow up and learn. As usual he ends with a question, "If the earth is what I think it is, an immense being, intact and coherent, does it have a mind? If it does, what is it thinking?" He suggests that there must be "a mind at work, adrift somewhere around or over or within the mass," not a Presence in charge, but "an immense collective thought, spread everywhere, unconcerned with the details." What does such a mind do? "It contemplates, that's what it does, is my answer." He concludes with his typical wit: "if It has a preoccupation with any part of Itself in particular, this would likely be, as Haldane once remarked, all the various and multitudinous beetles." This passage would be repeated at the conclusion of his next book.

The Fragile Species, Lewis Thomas's final book, is a collection in four sections of the best of his unpublished essays and talks from 1984 to 1992, during a time when he was scholar in residence at Cornell University Medical College. These essays are culminations of the different medical, scientific, and social ideas he has played with through his literary career, seen from the ending of his long and productive life. He begins by reflecting on changes in medical science and education, with a plea for curricular changes to take medical ignorance into account and for further basic medical research, two lifelong calls.

Perhaps the most remarkable essay is "The Art and Craft of Memoir," an 'autobiography' of the cell and evolution, from microorganism to human, powered by the mitrochondrial symbionts in each cell, "a condominium run by trustees." He exults, "The world works. The whole earth is alive, all of a piece, one living thing, a creature." As usual, his thoughts touch on many subjects as he concludes that this is "an optimistic, Panglossian view, and I am quick to say that I could be all wrong." This is quintessential Thomas style, ending with a personal and "cheerful footnote" that "next time you feel a cold coming on, reflect on the possibility that you may be giving a small boost to evolution."

The first section of the book ends with an essay on "The Life in the Mind," where he continues his reflections on the human brain as part of nature's machinery and questions about the place of human consciousness.

Why should there be something, instead of nothing? How do you organize a life, or a society, in accordance with physical laws that forbid purpose, causality, morality, and progress, especially when you have to do so with brains that stand alive with these very notions? Where's the fun in it?

This leads, oddly enough, into a long discussion of pleasure as essential to humanity, even to nature; "Pleasure in being alive ought to exist as a special, independent, autonomous sense."

The second section deals with more topical issues: AIDS, drug abuse, the problem of aging, and the obligation, both moral and biological, for modern, industrialized societies to see that citizens of impoverished nations have the opportunity for longer life spans and better health.

The third section presents more "random forays." "Comprehending my Cat Jeoffry" follows his hunches as he asks 3 questions, "what do we collectively mean by the word 'nature'?' "what does nature think about itself, and incidentally about us?" and 'what lies at the center, for us and all the rest of nature to have our attention focused on, or is there indeed a center?" As usual, bacteria become major actors in his scenario, as well as the mating of crickets, the navigation of bats, the question of his cat's consciousness, the Fibonacci series of numbers, and scientific ignorance. His delight in mysteries and patterns has not diminished over time.

The final section presents three lectures which could be called Thomas's valedictory essays, gathering his major concerns and entitled simply "Cooperation," "Communication," and "Connections." The motif of all three, as he announces in the first, is that "the driving force in nature, on this kind of planet with this sort of biosphere, is cooperation" and "the most inventive and novel of all schemes in nature, and perhaps the most significant in determining the great landmark events in evolution, is symbiosis, which is simply cooperative behavior carried to its extreme." He notes that his view may be idiosyncratic and may involve haranguing as much as informing, but he plunges on. He talks about amoebae which became dependent on invading bacterial pathogens, stromatolites and primordial bacteria as the beginning of life, termites as a living paradigm of symbiosis, altruism, and a computer game based on models of cooperation. He ends with a characteristic quip: "Now I am all for the computers, and I hope the word gets around quickly."

"Communication" revisits Thomas's thoughts on the gift and evolution of human language, and how it must have begun in children. He also considers the language of mathematics, as best expressing new realities of the world, and especially the language of poetry, with its special roots in childhood.

"Connections" returns to Thomas's concern about the dangers of nationalism and the need for some "powerful steadying cohesive force" for human society to enhance "the comity of nations" which must be--and no reader would be surprised by this conclusion--basic science. He is encouraged to find other people thinking about earth as a living organism, a creature whose cells include us, with a "vast wiring diagram that maintains the interconnectedness and interdependence of all its numberless parts, and the ultimate product of the life: more and more information." He ends with the question he posted in the first essay: does earth, this "immense being, intact and coherent" have a mind? Thomas concludes with a rare repetition (from Etcetera Etcetera) that such a mind must be able to contemplate and may be more preoccupied with beetles rather than human beings.

Lewis Thomas died in 1993 of Waldenstrom's disease, a rare lymphoma-like cancer, after a life of remarkable accomplishment. He had won numerous awards for his scientific and administrative work, including two that were named for him the Lewis Thomas Award for Communications from the American College of Physicians in 1986, and the Lewis Thomas Prize from Rockefeller University in 1990. He received 20 honorary degrees in science, laws, letters, and music. However, his legacy to nature writing lies in these little essays, models for the modern scientifically-based nature essay, which are at once philosophical, scientific, and personal, revealing the good humor, skepticism, optimism and faith of a renaissance man who never stopped learning about and taking delight in mysteries of the natural world.


Bernstein, Jeremy. "Lewis Thomas: Life of a Biology Watcher" in Experiencing Science: Profiles in Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1978. Pages 163-201.
Hellerstein, David. "The Muse of Medicine." Esquire 101 (March 1984): 72-77.
Langstaff, Peggy. "A strong voice on a fragile subject: Lewis Thomas and the world we share." April 1992. Internet publication. <http://www.bookpage.com/Bpinterviews/thomas492.html.>


Oates, Joyce Carol. "Beyond Common Sense: The Lives of a Cell." New York Times Book Review, 26 May 1974, 2-3.
Updike, John. "Books: A New Meliorism." New Yorker 50 (15 July 1974), 83-86.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "Biological Musings." New York Times Book Review, 6 May 1979, 1, 32-33.
Klaw, Spencer. "A Celebrant of Life on Earth." Natural History 88 (June/July 1979), 98-102.
Gould, Stephen Jay. "Calling Dr. Thomas." New York Review of Books, 30, no. 12, 12 July 1983, 12-13.


Angyal, Andrew J. Lewis Thomas. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Page 126-136.


Anderson, Chris. "Error, Ambiguity, and the Peripheral: Teaching Lewis Thomas." Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy. Carbondale: SIUP, 1989. Pages 315-332.
Angyal, Andrew J. Lewis Thomas. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Lounsberry, Barbara. "Lewis Thomas and the Revival of Nineteenth Century Literary Tradition." Markham Review 13 (Fall-Winter 1983-84), 7-10.
Nemerov, Howard. "Lewis Thomas, Montaigne, and Human Happiness." New and Selected Essays, 223-31. Carbondale: SIU Press, 1985.
Pitts, Mary Ellen. "Undermining the Authority of Science: Epistemological Symbiosis in Loren Eiseley and Lewis Thomas." Rendezvous 25 (Fall 1989):, 83-90.
Weiland, Steven. "'A Tune Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves': Medical Science and Lewis Thomas." Michigan Quarterly Review 24 (Spring 1985): 293-306. Reprinted in Intellectual Craftsmen: Ways and Works in American Scholarship 1935-1990. Pages 189-204. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1991.
White, Fred D. "Science, Discourse, and Authorial Responsibility. San Jose Studies 10 (Winter 1984), 25-38.


The Lewis Thomas Papers, 1941-1992, are at the Princeton University Library.