Horace Freeland Judson, R.I.P.

May 26, 2011 • 4:50 am

As the Guardian reports, Horace Freeland Judson (b. 1931), an American writer on the history of science, has died at the age of eighty.  Among his books was a classic, The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), a history of molecular genetics. It is simply spellbinding: the best popular book on molecular biology I’ve ever read, and one of the best of all books on modern biology.  It begins with the classic work of Avery, MacLeod and McCarty at the Rockefeller Institute on the “transforming principle” in bacteria, showing that DNA was almost certainly the genetic material, and then proceeds through the work of Hershey and Chase, Lederberg and Lederberg, Meselson and Stahl (whose proof of the semiconservative replication of DNA I consider, along with others, as the most beautiful experiment in all biology), Watson and Crick’s elucidation of DNA structure, the discovery and unraveling of the triplet code, the operon, and so on.  It’s a lively, extremely well-written book, full of colorful characters, that anybody with an interest in biology should read.

Buy it or take it out of the library, but read it now.  You won’t regret it. The Guardian says:

A part of The Eighth Day of Creation was originally published by the New Yorker in 1978, and the full, 600-page text is still in print. It was immediately recognised as a classic, in part because it was the first complete record of a giant intellectual achievement. The physicist Jeremy Bernstein wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I finished the book with a great sense of elation and a deepened admiration for what the human family, at its best, can accomplish.”

His other books, while creditable, never achieved the standard of Eighth Day, but that is enough for a lifetime.

One cultural note from Judson’s life:

For seven years, during the height of the counterculture, he [Judson] travelled around Europe, seeing plays and attending exhibitions. He interviewed John Lennon, Samuel Beckett and others, among them Bob Dylan, during the singer’s 1965 tour of Britain. He endured a tirade from Dylan against Time (and squareness in general) that has remained a part of pop culture because it was memorably captured in DA Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back (1967). Horace always dismissed the speech as “contrived”.

Judson is survived by his four children, one of whom, Olivia, is a biologist who until recently wrote a column on evolution for The New York Times.

The Guardian‘s obituary ends:

He was an atheist, and once, at the conclusion of a long dinner, told me that while life (and, by extension, death) was full of surprises, he suspected that, at death, “the machine just stops”. Horace may have stopped, but his great book and its influence go on. In science writing, we are all Judsonians now.

And in skepticism as well.

23 thoughts on “Horace Freeland Judson, R.I.P.

  1. I have just been re-reading The 8th Day of Creation, for an article on the 50th anniversary of the cracking of genetic code by Matthaei and Nirenberg (tomorrow morning, folks!). Jerry’s right – it really is a brilliant read, dealing with one of the most exciting periods in the history of science. Farewell, HFJ!

  2. NB what’s so good about The 8th Day is the importance of oral history in this piece of science history. That was a real breakthrough. He went and talked to all the players, then filtered their accounts through his own view.

  3. I read The Eighth Day of Creation a few years ago, and just recently bought another copy (hardcover) which I intend to convey as a gift to a friend.

    One passage in TEDOC I found fascinating was the revelation that Francis Crick’s scientific career was motivated by his atheism:

    An important reason Crick changed to biology, he said to me, was that
    he is an atheist, and was impatient to throw light into the remaining
    shadowy sanctuaries of vitalistic illusions. “I had read Schodinger’s
    little book, too. Essentially, if you read that book fairly
    critically, the main import is very peculiar; for one thing, it’s a
    book written by a physicist who doesn’t know any chemistry! But the
    impact – there’s no doubt that Schrodinger wrote it in a compelling
    style, not like the junk that most people write, and it was
    imaginative. It suggested that biological problems could be thought
    about, in physical terms – and thus it gave me the impression that
    exciting things in this field were not far off. My own motives I never
    had any doubt about; I was very clear in my mind. Because when i
    decided to leave the Admiralty, when I was about thirty, then on the
    grounds that I knew so little anyway I might just as well go into
    anything I liked, I looked around for fields which would illuminate
    this particular point of view, against vitalism. And the two fields I
    chose were what we would now call molecular biology, though the term
    wasn’t common then, certainly I didn’t know it – but I would have said
    the borderline between the living and the nonliving. That was the
    phrase I had in my mind, on the one hand. And on the other, the higher
    nervous system and this problem of consciousness, whatever that may
    mean. And I had a period of some – weeks, maybe longer, trying to
    decide between these two. I eventually decided on what we now call
    molecular biology simply because I thought what I knew, as a
    physicist, was more relevant! But as you know, in recent years, we’re
    now edging towards the nervous system.”

    1. Crick also had a family history of biology. His grandfather corresponded with Charles Darwin, and this correspondence led to Darwin’s final publication (about a water beetle acting as an agent of dispersal for a freshwater clam.)

  4. I knew the book by the title and Olivia Judson’s book, but have not The Eight Day of Creation and did not realize the family connection. I will look out for it and add it to the huge pile!

  5. I may have an original first edition hardcopy that I found in my father-in-laws basement. When I found it years ago, I could not put it down. I make my students study and write about the Griffiths experiments, Avery McCarty McLeod and other classics. Some of these classic papers are available online.

  6. I am ashamed to admit that I have never read 8th Day, though I have owned a copy for 15 years.

    But wait–the author was the guy from TIME that Dylan skewered in DLB?! I had no idea! What’s next, the ‘science student’ was Francis Collins?

  7. I read Eighth Day of Creation seventeen years ago, and it remains my favorite account of the 20th century biological revolution. Thanks be to ceiling cat for the life of Horace Freeland Judson.

  8. I picked up a copy of Judson’s book some 20 years ago, but haven’t read it. My bad…

    However, let me also suggest people take a look at Gunther Stent’s compilation of first-person essays (in honor of Max Delbruck), “Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology” (1966, but also still in print from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press). With chapters by all of the big names who contributed to the field–many of whom ended up with Nobel Prizes–it is a good introduction to the personalities, as well as the research.

    1. I second your suggestion. I’ve given this to students, and I inherited a nice second printing copy from a colleague.

      To get even nerdier, and this not in print (I don’t think), The DNA Molecule (ISBN 0-7167-0287-8), a 1978 reprint collection edited by David Friefelder. If you remember saline citrate…

    1. Me too. I’d also like to make an open request to the biologists out there to do something about this death thingy. I know there’s been a lot of recent advances in those telomere thingies, but I’d kind of prefer that there be some kind of resolution to the bigger death thingy as well. I’m on a schedule.

      1. Now added to the pile – sadly spent £100 on books in one go… well, you can’t take it with you!

        A great opening sentence!

  9. I read it within a year or two of publication (i.e., about 30 years ago) and still remember it as one of the great books on science history. It was particularly fascinating since major parts of the story (e.g., the role of mRNA and cracking the code) unfolded during my student years.

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