Lewis Thomas

By: Jerrold Freitag
November 25, 2014


American systems thinker, essayist, and physician LEWIS THOMAS (1913–93) once wrote that “by the time I was born, more of me had died than survived.” The mistakes, the waste, the meandering of intricate systems (he was referring, in this quote, to embryonic cells) and their epic, haphazard consequences, geologic and eternal in pace, all have analogous influence on what we are and how we think; or how we are and what we think. His essays for the New England Journal of Medicine are teacher texts on how to think. His books The Lives of a Cell (1974) and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983), among others, turn even the most sophisticated readers into students. Though biologically tilted in his themes, Thomas was a playfully serious etymologist too, claiming that language is a poetic contagion. His writing braids arrays of disciplines into self-critical thoughts: Progenitors, mitochondria, and cosmological measures come back to Bartók, language, or a horse chestnut tree that looks like church. Thomas’s point, always, is that humankind is a tiny part of something bigger and much more complex than we can grasp, and that quick and simple conclusions only gloss veracity, beauty, and compassion. Thomas referred to himself as “loose-minded,” which explains his extraordinary ability to connect disparate thoughts past which the rest of us fly as we try to make the world fit into the model of what we assume it already is.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Mark Lanegan, Ann Stanford, Etta Jones, Poul Anderson.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Partisan (1904-13) and New God (1914-23) Generations.


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