There was probably no way for Deborah Blum to grow up as anything but a science writer. Her father, an exuberant entomologist, liked to bring his research home – “Check out this black widow. I’m going to keep its cage on the dining room table so we can watch it while we eat.” Her mother, a freelance writer, published a family newspaper and drafted her four daughters as staff reporters. “This seems to be a very whiny story about the black widow.”
She was born in Urbana, Illinois, on October 19, 1954. Both her parents were then students at the University of Illinois, but the family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when she was two, after her father took a job at Louisiana State University. The Blum girls – known as the four D’s (Deborah, Darcy, Dawn and Dana) kept snakes as pets, grew tadpoles into frogs, collected butterflies, and waded in neighborhood swamps where they lived in fear of crayfish climbing into their boots. “Can you write about something besides the way crayfish pinch?”
They followed their parents around the world on bug hunting adventures: Costa Rica (“Drop that wasp right now!) Puerto Rico, England, and Canada, where Deborah spent her afternoons working for her father by flying helium-filled balloons that carried chemicals designed to attract male bees. “Stop threatening to write stories about child slave labor.”
Despite this, she decided to become a scientist herself, and, in 1972, started college at Florida State University with a proposed chemistry major. She loved it – she still thinks chemistry is the most astonishingly beautiful science – but she did discover that a laboratory is no place for the absent-minded klutz. She decided to change majors the day she set her braid on fire in a Bunsen burner: “Do you smell smoke?” asked her lab instructor.
She transferred to the University of Georgia and graduated in 1976 with a major in journalism and a double minor in political science and anthropology. She worked for three newspapers – The Times, in Gainesville, Ga., The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, and the St. Petersburg Times in Florida covering police and fires, courts, city government, and education. In, Florida she had one of those epiphany moments – she’d learned to love journalism but she wanted to write about science, how it worked, what made it fascinating. She quit her job and went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying science writing in the journalism school’s specialized reporting program. Her advisor, Clay Schoenfeld, urged her to study the history of science – “You can’t really understand what you write about if you don’t know its history.”
After graduating, Blum went to work as a science writer for McClatchy Newspapers in California, starting with The Fresno Bee and moving to The Sacramento Bee in 1984. She worked in Sacramento for 13 years, going to Alaska to cover glaciers, Hawaii to observe volcanoes, Pasadena to write about the triumphant arrival of Voyager 2 at Uranus, Houston to report on the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. She wrote about global climate change and ozone depletion, about nuclear weapons design and government secrecy, about biology of behavior. But her most influential work was a series on ethical issues in primate research, called The Monkey Wars, which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. “The one thing you already know,” she and other winners were told at the ceremony, “is the first line of your obit.”
The series became the starting point for a book, also called The Monkey Wars, published by Oxford University Press in 1994. By then, she’d learned to value the way a book allows a writer to delve deeper into complicated questions. She started work on a second book, an exploration of gender differences, called Sex on the Brain, published by Viking in 1997. That same year, she returned to the University of Wisconsin as a journalism professor. At her newspaper goodbye party, her editors said they couldn’t believe how many stories about “insects, chickens, and monkeys” she’d managed to get into the newspaper.
She was a professor of journalism at UW-Madison for 18 years, eventually becoming the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism., While there, she wrote for The New York Times,
The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Time, Scientific
American, Nature, and New Scientist, among other publications. She also served as co-editor of a widely used guide to science journalism, A Field Guide for Science Writers, published by Oxford University Press in 1997 and 2006. She was also guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing (Houghton Mifflin). And maybe it was something about returning to the place where she had spent so many hours studying history of science, but Blum began working on books that used moments in history to explore the way that science works. She wanted to look at the way new ideas in science can change human culture. As a book reviewer noted in the Los Angeles Times, although her subjects may change, her writing focuses consistently on the often-tempestuous intersection between science and society.
The first such book, Love at Goon Park; Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, was published by Perseus Books in 2002 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The book is both the biography of a complex and driven psychologist – Harry F. Harlow – and the biography of an intellectual idea, the idea that love actually matters.
Her next, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, published in 2006, looked at a band of brilliant 19th century scientists who were willing to risk their careers to investigate the idea that the dead can communicate with the living.
Her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook
– a story of two pioneering scientists determined to solve poison
mysteries and murders - was published in hardback in 2010 and was named
one of the top 100 books of the year by Amazon. The following year it
came out in paperback and promptly became a New York Times best seller.
In January 2014, it also became a widely praised documentary film on
PBS’s American Experience. Her fascination with chemistry, crime and culture is also on display on her former Wired blog, Elemental and her New York Times blog, Poison Pen. She is currently working on a book on the story of poisonous food and food politics at the turn of the 20th century, under contract with Penguin Press.
In July 2015, she was named director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is planning to launch a new science magazine, Undark, in April 2016. The name of the magazine comes from the 1920s brand name for radium-based luminous paint and she has described the publication as one that will seek to illuminate science and its complex, human story in both light and shadow.
Blum is married to a fellow writer, Peter Haugen, who shares her fascination with history and is, in fact, the author of World History for Dummies. She has no plans to give up writing about science, even in her new position, but she occasionally threatens to cap her career by writing a memoir because she knows that story about her father and the 1000 mealworm cookies needs to be told.