Horace Judson, author, dies

He had written the acclaimed 'Eighth Day of Creation' and taught at Johns Hopkins

  • Horace Freeland Judson
Horace Freeland Judson (Sigrid Estrada )
May 10, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Horace Freeland Judson, the author of a widely praised history of molecular biology who also taught at the Johns Hopkins University, died of a stroke Friday at his Roland Park home. He was 80.

For his book "The Eighth Day of Creation," he interviewed nearly 100 scientists he called "makers of the revolution in biology" and told the story of the foundations of modern genetics.

"He was a gifted person with a deep understanding of science," said Dr. Paul R. McHugh, a friend who was psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1975 to 2001. "Horace had a vision for the advancement of science. He also had a journalist's capacity for dramatic writing. He could capture the personality of the scientists he wrote about in a telling sentence or two."

Mr. Judson had held the Henry R. Luce chair in science writing at Hopkins. In 1987, the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation named him a MacArthur Fellowship winner.

He was born in New York City. His father was an economist and his mother would later become a schoolteacher. At 13, he contracted polio, which left him with a disabled arm.

"Few people noticed this, because he made it a point of pride to be able to do everything everyone else could do, including tie a bow tie," said his daughter, Olivia Judson of Berlin, Germany. "He used his teeth to hold the material."

He entered the University of Chicago when he was 15 and earned a bachelor's degree at 17.

"It was a complete education," his daughter said. "GIs coming back from the war were also attending. Some of these much older men taught him to smoke, drink bourbon and play poker, and introduced him to women."

When he left the University of Chicago, he joined his father, an economist for the Allies, during the period of the Berlin airlift. "He learned German on the streets, bought tailored suits with cartons of cigarettes, and came to adore the city," his daughter said. He later spent a year at an institute for advanced study, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

As a young man, he worked in a direct-mail political campaign in New Jersey, wrote ad copy and got into journalism at Time magazine. He initially wrote book reviews, and then become the magazine's arts and sciences correspondent based in London and Paris. Among his interview subjects were playwright Samuel Beckett and musician John Lennon.

In 1973, he quit Time to devote himself to writing "The Eighth Day of Creation," a book about the scientists who created molecular biology. The book was partially serialized in The New Yorker.

"It gave a vibrant depiction of scientific personalities, styles, outlooks, intrigues and conflicts," his daughter said. "Few books before or since have better conveyed what it is like to actually be a scientist."

A New York Times reviewer said, "He is a graceful writer with a keen sense of the human as well as the scientific drama." The editor of Nature called it a "gossipy masterpiece."

Mr. Judson never earned a doctorate — nor had any specific scientific training — but he held academic posts. He moved to Baltimore in 1981 and taught writing at Hopkins' Homewood campus. He was also a senior research scholar at Stanford University and a research professor at George Washington University.

"He could be very prickly, and made a number of enemies; but he also inspired a fierce devotion in some of his friends," his daughter said. "He was an excellent cook, and a gourmet. He was erudite and widely read. He adored memorizing poetry."

Family members said Mr. Judson often spent his Saturday mornings at the Waverly Farmers' Market. He kept a phone directory for sources of Maine oysters, Kentucky hams, turkeys and rabbits, as well as marzipan candy. Once a year he made a trip to Brooklyn, N.Y., to Sahadi's, a spice market. He was fond of ice cream and made his own. His favorites were black raspberry and one that was chocolate-based.

"If he went to a restaurant and enjoyed a dish, he could replicate it," his daughter said. "He was pretty good at it."

A friend, Herbert A. Davis, who lives in Upperco, said, "He loved to entertain and was one of the most accomplished intellectuals I have ever known. He could be opinionated and he could be difficult, but he was a close friend."

Mr. Judson read widely, and consumed a few pulp thrillers a week.

Services are private.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include two sons, Nicholas Judson of Boston and Thomas Judson of Princeton, N.J.; another daughter, Grace Judson of San Diego; and a sister, Judith Judson of Arlington, Va. His wife of 24 years, the former Penelope Sylvia Jones, died in 1993. An earlier marriage to the former Ann Schramm ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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