The Interior Cupboards of Stephen Jay Gould

Monday September 24 2018Having spent the last two years in and out of the John Radcliffe hospital and with more to come, I have been suffering from, as Kipling might have said, a ‘malaise of the interior cupboards’. Reading has helped me get through this very frightening time and none more so than a particular piece of writing by the man who inspired me to be a science writer in the first place, Stephen Jay Gould.

To me and many others, Steve was the greatest scientific essayist of the Twentieth Century. His balliwick were the biological – and particularly – the evolutionary sciences. I knew him slightly, and he always made time for me in a hectic schedule when I visited Harvard or Woods Hole or when he visited the UK.

One day in the 1980s Steve found himself in hospital with cancer – specifically the poor-outcome disease peritoneal mesothelioma. He was given the bad news that he might not have long to live. But with his razor-sharp mind and his extensive knowledge of statistics (gleaned through work on animals such as the extinct Irish Elk) he was able to see through the harsh reality of the numbers to a far more more humane outcome.

Put briefly, statistics – by their very nature -homogenize a variety of different inputs; in the case of medicine, not least the patient’s health, the time since their cancer was diagnosed, and the individual’s will to survive. So Steve wrote THE MEDIAN ISN’T THE MESSAGE explaining all this and emphasising the importance of a positive mental outlook towards even serious illness.

In the process he gave hope to thousands who found themselves in a similar position – not least of all, me.

So thanks Steve, passed away sixteen years now, for a piece of writing that even today generates an enduring legacy of hope