Lewis Thomas, 80; Spent Life Studying, Fighting Cancer
NEW YORK - Lewis Thomas, the physician whose ruminations on biology won him acclaim as the "poet laureate of 20th-century medical science," died yesterday of cancer, a disease he spent his life studying and fighting. He was 80.
Dr. Thomas, former head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, suffered from a rare form of cancer named after one of his friends, Jan Waldenstrom of Sweden.
Waldenstrom's Disease, an abnormal proliferation of white blood cells and plasma cells, sapped his strength and reduced his weight, but didn't stop his mind.
"There's really no such thing as the agony of dying," he said in a recent interview. "Something happens when the body knows it's about to go. . . ."
Asked what dying felt like, Dr. Thomas replied, "Weakness. . . . I'm beginning to lose all respect for my body."
Dr. Thomas won the National Book Award for "The Lives of the Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher." The collection of essays that had appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine was published in 1974. He won the American Book Award for "The Medusa and the Snail," published in 1979.
Dr. Thomas was born and raised in New York City. After Harvard Medical School, internships in Boston and New York, and Navy service in medical research during World War II, Dr. Thomas began a series of medical-school appointments at Johns Hopkins, Tulane, and the University of Minnesota.
He returned to New York in 1954 as chairman of pathology at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center. His experiments showed that lab animals injected with small amounts of certain cellular poisons became resistant to larger doses of the poisons, and to trauma from burns and other injuries.
In 1972, Dr. Thomas became dean of the Yale Medical School and headed a National Academy of Sciences committee that evaluated a broad new federal cancer program.
From 1973 to 1980, Dr. Thomas was president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, one of the world's leading cancer institutions.
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