Biography and History

Lewis Thomas, M.D., noted physician, scientist, and author, was born on November 25, 1913, to Joseph S. and Grace Emma (Peck) Thomas in Flushing, New York, where his father, a surgeon, had a medical practice. After four very successful years in high school, he entered Princeton University at the age of fifteen. Thomas's first three years at Princeton, however, were desultory at best, until his senior year when a biology course sparked his interest. He received a B.S. from Princeton in 1933 and entered Harvard Medical School, graduating Cum Laude in 1937. The next two years were spent as an intern at Boston City Hospital (1937-1939), and another two as a resident in neurology at Columbia's Neurological Institute (1939-1941).

He began his investigative work as a Tilney Memorial Fellow at Thorndike Lab, Boston City Hospital (1941-1942), and in 1942 joined the Naval Medical Research Unit at Rockefeller Institute, studying infectious diseases of importance to the armed forces for the next four years. Also at this time, on January 1, 1941, he married Beryl Dawson. During these years Dr. Thomas began publishing some important scientific papers, the earliest material in this collection.

In 1946, Dr. Thomas moved to Johns Hopkins University as an assistant professor of pediatrics, where he initiated a series of investigations on acute rheumatic fever. He continued this work as an associate professor at Tulane University for the next two years (1948-1950). In 1948 he published a paper on the Schwartzmann Phenomenon, a subject of significant scientific importance. He became a full professor of medicine at Tulane in 1950, and the same year moved again for four years (1950-1954) to the University of Minnesota to be a professor of pediatrics and medicine and director of pediatric research laboratories at Heart Hospital.

Dr. Thomas went to New York University in 1954 where he was professor of pathology until 1969. Pathology became his main interest, and he was publishing papers of this nature during those years on such subjects as cortisone and infection, serum sickness, and drug allergy, as well as many papers on endotoxin.

In 1973, Lewis Thomas became president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and chancellor in 1980. During these years he guided the Center and served on many of its committees, such as the Subcommittee on Informed Consent, the Standing Committee of the Medical Board, the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Sloan-Kettering Institute Senate and its Board of Scientific Consultants. He also received copies of reports, minutes, and correspondence related to other committees in which he was not directly involved, thereby allowing him to oversee all aspects of the Center. The years of his presidency and chancellorship saw many grants bestowed on the Center by the American Cancer Society and the Rockefeller family, to name a few; many grants given by MSKCC to other research centers such as the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and major corporate reorganizations and additions, such as the creation of a joint library facility for Rockefeller University, Cornell University Medical College, and MSKCC, a joint genetics department with Cornell University Medical College at Sloan-Kettering Institute, and the dedication of a new hospital in November 1973. Dr. Thomas served on various other joint committees to further these ends.

When he left MSKCC in 1983 for the State University of New York at Stony Brook to be a professor, he was no less active. He was on various boards of corporations and non-profit organizations, some spanning the years at MSKCC and beyond: Biocyte Corporation (board member, 1984-1990), the Aaron Diamond Foundation (1985-1990), Monell Chemical Senses Center (1979-1991), and the National Research Council (1986-1988), among others. Dr. Thomas also served as “communicator” to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which involved submitting scientific papers by others to a review committee for possible publication in the Proceedings.

Lewis Thomas is probably best known to the public from his column in The New England Journal of Medicine, “Notes of a Biology Watcher,” which appeared from 1971 to 1980, and from the resulting book-length compilations of these essays, The Lives of a Cell (1974) and The Medusa and the Snail (1979). Dr. Thomas has published a number of other books, such as The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983), Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony (1983), Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word Watcher (1990), and The Fragile Species (1992), as well as a plethora of articles and essays. These works, expressed in an informal friendly tone, earned him the National Book Award for The Lives of a Cell, the American Book Award for The Medusa and the Snail (1981), and many other literary awards, as well as recognition for being one of the best modern scientific essayists who writes non-technically about the meaning of biology and, by extension, the meaning of life.

As the collection reflects (from 1966 to 1990), Dr. Thomas was much in demand as a speaker and lecturer in this country and abroad. He presented papers and gave speeches and commencement addresses, many of which found their way into widely-known medical journals and popular magazines. Among the many honors Dr. Thomas has received are the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award (May 1980) and the coveted Woodrow Wilson Award (February 1981). In April of 1986 Princeton University honored him by naming its new molecular biology building the “Lewis Thomas Laboratory.” In addition, Dr. Thomas has received 20 honorary degrees in science, law, letters, and music. A few of them are from Yale University, the University of Rochester, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, the Medical College of Ohio, and Reed College.

Source: From the finding aid for C0738

  • Lewis Thomas Papers. 1941-1992 (inclusive), 1973-1983 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0738

    The Lewis Thomas papers consist primarily of files from the years (1973-1983) that Thomas (Princeton Class of 1933) spent as president and, later, chancellor, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. These contain general correspondence with doctors, drafts and reprints of his essays and books, files of lectures, presentations, and awards, and files of scientific organizations with which he was involved. There are also drafts and reprints of early scientific papers (which pre-date his years at MSKCC).