Washington. -- "Statistically," wrote Lewis Thomas, "the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise." Mr. Thomas seems to have been constantly in such a pleasant condition until, recently, in his 81st year, death came to draw the material of him back into randomness.
A quiet but insistent voice has been stilled at a moment when public life is much preoccupied with subjects Mr. Thomas wrote about elegantly -- health and medicine. He had been dean of the schools of medicine at Yale and New York University and head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. And he won two National Book Awards for the collections of essays he called "notes of a biology watcher." He watched in amazement undiminished over the years.
Human beings, he reminded readers, have been around for only a few thousand years. These rookies, like all of life, are descendants of something that got going three thousand million or so years ago when, Mr. Thomas supposed, some single cell was fertilized by a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled. Everything, from bacteria to redwoods to shortstops, started then.
Any one of us results from the chance encounter of an egg and one sperm from among lots of competitors. From that encounter comes first a single human cell. "People," said Mr. Thomas, "ought to be walking around all day, all through their waking hours, calling to each other in endless wonderment, talking of nothing except that cell."
And all the really essential information needed for testifying to Congress or turning a double play or leaning against a tree is, Mr. Thomas said, in that first cell. It divides, and then the two
become four, and ere long from that single cell has come a trillion-cell apparatus that thinks, inquires and worries.
"Worrying," Mr. Thomas wrote, "is the most natural and spontaneous of all human functions." Nowadays we worry, he thought, inordinately about health.
Most of us are healthy, most of the time, yet we do not respect the durability and sheer staying power of the human organism. "It is a distortion, with something profoundly disloyal about it, to picture the human being as a teetering, fallible contraption, always needing watching and patching, always on the verge of flapping to pieces." As most internists know, "most things get better by themselves. Most things, in fact, are better by morning."
Which is not to say that Mr. Thomas was complacent, or a fatalist. He was a scientist, and a passionate practitioner of medical research. But he had a sense of history and hence of limits.
Time was, and not so long ago, when doctors were valued primarily for their "bedside manner." Their job was primarily to make patients as comfortable as possible until nature either LTC cured or killed them. That sort of medicine was an improvement over the nearly blind injuriousness of medicine during several millennia.
The prerequisite of progress began in the 1830s when a few disturbers of the medical profession's peace discerned that the greater part of medicine was, Mr. Thomas said, nonsense. All the bleeding and purging, all the infusions of every known plant and solutions of every known metal, the use of every conceivable diet -- all of it was, Mr. Thomas believed, an unrelievedly deplorable story of mostly blind guesswork, each wrong guess stubbornly adhered to for decades, even centuries.
It was not until about 1900 that probabilities shifted so that active medicine was apt to do more good than harm. The sort of medicine we take for granted, and increasingly demand as an entitlement, began in the 1930s when sulfonamides and penicillin were added to the pharmacological arsenal. Then doctors became markedly more confident of curing. But only up to a point.
There are about 5 billion people alive now, and all will die more or less on a known schedule. Mr. Thomas thought that one day human beings may be largely free of diseases. Then we shall, each of us, be like the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.'s poem:
It went to pieces all at once --
All at once, and nothing first --
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
Sooner or later, Mr. Thomas said serenely, all our particles will return to randomness. Our particles, yes. But Mr. Thomas whimsically thought that when his life ended, "I may find myself hanging around in some sort of mid-air, one of those small thoughts, drawn back into the memory of the earth: in that particular sense I will be alive." He is.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.