Calling Dr. Thomas

The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher

by Lewis Thomas
Viking, 270 pp., $14.75

Lewis Thomas
Lewis Thomas; drawing by David Levine

Lewis Thomas’s autobiography is, in many good ways, a deceptive book. Its two parts read, superficially, like a reverie, full of cozy nostalgia celebrating a life well lived. The first section describes his father’s career as a general practitioner in Flushing, New York City—my old stomping grounds when I was a boy, and well remembered as densely urbanized in the late 1940s, but virtually a rural village during Thomas’s youth. We read of horse-drawn carriages, home visits, endless concern, and little pecuniary reward. The second section treats Thomas’s adult career as a doctor and medical administrator. He transmits an overwhelming impression of the fun that research can be, and he even manages to intimate that administration can be more rewarding, even more amusing, than frustrating—a proposition that I find hard to believe.

Yet in many ways, and despite its overt content, The Youngest Science is a profound and even disturbing book. Both its parts are fundamentally about trade-offs made necessary, and surely in large part desirable, by improving technology—specifically, the sacrifice of heart for efficiency. Dr. Thomas, Sr., and his old medicine could do precious little to cure disease, but his ministrations were often effective because his personal concern and endless attention inspired confidence. In the second part, Thomas describes his own research as especially enjoyable, and perhaps even more effective, because its small scale, and the limited resources that make a senior researcher scrounge for equipment and do the routine procedures himself, guarantee a closeness to detail that may be all for the good (ethically and factually). By contrast, modern heads of laboratories command vast empires and often never sit at a work-bench. Vastly more work can be done in a given amount of time, but senior researchers can so lose touch with the day-to-day procedures of their laboratories that the fraudulent data of a Darsee can go undetected for years.

Thomas is able to insinuate these serious themes into a charming and superficially rambling narrative because he has been perfecting this technique for years in the two books of essays that have made him a popular figure—The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail. Thomas’s essays are unsurpassed for their uncanny knack of starting with a simple fact, a bit of home-grown Yankee wisdom, and slyly developing its implications until some profound truth slips through before you hardly notice. Thomas has now successfully pursued this strategy into book length.

I was enthralled by the book’s first part, probably because I harbor memories of what may have been the last years of physicians’ home visits in my own version of Flushing. (I distinctly remember how Dr. Schildkraut’s arrival to treat me for flu once interrupted my fascination with the radio news of King George VI’s death.)

Dr. Thomas, Sr., began with a bicycle, then graduated to a horse and buggy and finally, a year before Lewis’s birth,…

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