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John Maddox (1925–2009)

John Maddox, who died on 12 April, was editor of Nature during 1966–73 and 1980–95. He transformed the journal from a collegially amateurish publication into one that was challenging and professional in its assessment of science and in its journalistic reportage.

Maddox was first appointed editor of Nature in 1966, as marked by a cover story in Saturday Review. Credit: SATURDAY REVIEW/MADDOX FAMILY ARCHIVE

John Royden Maddox exerted an influence on science and the politics of science that was unequalled by any journalist or editor in recent times. He was unique among science journalists in the depth of his understanding and his authority, for he began his career as an academic scientist and throughout his life maintained a passionate enthusiasm for science. In many areas, especially in theoretical physics and in cosmology, he could debate technical questions with the professionals at their own level. As editor of Nature he took nothing for granted, and was known to settle arguments with authors or referees by tackling the equations himself.

Maddox's intellectual appetites were voracious. His powers of assimilation and a remarkable memory enabled him to talk and write penetratingly on just about any subject with little apparent effort. During his two long stints as editor of Nature, he would dictate his leading articles to his secretary, Mary Sheehan, in prose that seldom needed revision.

Maddox was born near Swansea, south Wales, in 1925. He attended the local school, from which, at the age of 16, he won a scholarship to Christ Church, University of Oxford, to read chemistry. There he also played rugby and led a boisterous life as an undergraduate. He was drawn to theoretical physical chemistry, and at King's College London embarked on a research project in molecular orbital theory with Charles Coulson, then the leader in the field.

Maddox never wrote up his doctoral thesis, but in 1949 he went directly from Coulson to the University of Manchester as an assistant lecturer in theoretical physics. Manchester was a centre of excellence in the physical sciences — Alan Turing and F. C. Williams, for instance, were developing the first advanced computer, and for a while Maddox worked alongside Turing as a programmer.

After several years of research and teaching theoretical physics, Maddox, who was regarded as a theoretician of exceptional talent, found himself struggling to keep his family on a lecturer's salary. So when in 1955 he was offered the position of science correspondent of what was then still the Manchester Guardian, at twice his university income, he found it impossible to refuse. Having always shown reluctance to publish the results of his research, he now embraced the challenge of publishing every day. From the outset, he was valued on the paper for his ability to fill a column of 2,000 words with engrossing material at an instant's notice.

In 1962–63, Maddox took a year out from the Guardian on a faculty appointment at what was then the Rockefeller Institute in New York. He lectured a little, talked a lot of science and, as he put it, persuaded a lot of people who had written bad papers not to publish them. The president of the Rockefeller, Detlev Bronk, offered Maddox a permanent position on the faculty, but he had already decided to return to Britain and a new challenge: he joined the Nuffield Foundation to direct the ambitious Science Teaching Project.

Then Nature came calling. In 1965 the editor, Jack Brimble, died and Maddox was offered the position by Maurice Macmillan, company chairman and scion of the family, which still owned the journal. At that time Nature was in a sad state. Its circulation was a mere 11,000 (3,000 copies of which were sold abroad), the news coverage was scanty and flat, and there was only one qualified scientist on the staff. Maddox hesitated about taking charge of what seemed to be a moribund enterprise. He asked Macmillan how the backlog of unpublished manuscripts stood. Someone was sent to count them and the answer, when it came back, was 2,300. In the Nature office Maddox found the backlog arranged in stacks on the floor by month of submission, forming a histogram with a Gaussian distribution. He exacted, as one of his conditions for taking the job, a promise of additional pages to allow elimination of the arrears over a period of 18 months. He took home a suitcase full of papers each evening and weekend until he had scrutinized every one.

Within a few months the journal took on an unaccustomed buoyancy. Hard-hitting leading articles on science policy issued from Maddox's pen, commentaries on current developments in science appeared in the reinvigorated News & Views section and a refereeing system was instituted. Maddox recruited an able staff and imbued them with his energy and enthusiasm. He forged an agreement with The Times to provide a science news column, and later, in 1970, established the first Nature office in the United States, in Washington DC.

In 1973, following disagreements with the management about matters of publishing policy, Maddox resigned and was succeeded by David Davies. Maddox had started two offshoots, Nature New Biology and Nature Physical Sciences, so that in effect Nature was now publishing three times a week, and it was a source of much regret to him that this prescient initiative was abandoned on his departure. After two years as a freelance writer and publisher, he was appointed director of the Nuffield Foundation. But after a while he began to chafe at the limited opportunities for expansion, and when, in 1979, he was approached by Macmillan Publishers with the offer of his old job back, he accepted.

Nature had not done badly in the intervening years, but its circulation had suffered a minor relapse and Maddox set to with renewed energy to pursue his vision for the journal. He enlarged the staff, and arranged to supply Le Monde with regular articles about science. Nature also sponsored conferences in the liveliest areas of science and technology; these were held in Cambridge (UK), Boston, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere, and attracted large audiences.

Brenda and John Maddox in the early 1960s. Credit: MADDOX FAMILY ARCHIVE

Editorial offices in France, Germany and Japan followed, and the journal took on a truly international aspect. Its circulation rose to 57,000, and its reputation likewise burgeoned. Maddox had come close to his professed ideal — to ensure that Nature would become indispensable reading, and that every scientist (and many others too) would await its weekly delivery in the post with keen anticipation.

Maddox abhorred stasis: he was an endless source of ideas, many brilliant, others dismaying to his staff (although often his aim was only to keep them on their toes). His restless eye for a scientific or journalistic coup led him on occasion into deep waters. Once in a while he would overrule a colleague and insist that a controversial manuscript be published, despite anguished objections in the office and the firm opinions of reviewers. Once or twice such papers were juxtaposed by a referee's dissenting evaluation.

The most notorious such episode, which occurred in 1988, centred on a paper from the laboratory of Jacques Benveniste in Paris, purporting to show that a substance, diluted to the point at which not one of its molecules remained in the assay mixtures, could still exert its biological effect. Maddox published the paper, along, shortly afterwards, with a rebuttal based on a visit to Benveniste's laboratory by himself, an American referee, and the well-known magician James (the Amazing) Randi. A correspondent wrote that it was at last clear to him how Nature selected papers for publication: they were chosen, he now surmised, by the editor, a conjuror and his rabbit. Maddox relished the uproar that followed, and remained unrepentant.

As science itself continued to grow, so did the demand for new publications. Nature and other high-profile journals could absorb only a few of the high-quality papers now seeking an outlet. Hence the impetus for the launch of monthly companion journals to Nature, to accommodate papers that the mother journal had to decline for lack of space, or that were deemed too specialized for the broad appeal at which it had always aimed. Nature Genetics was the first to appear, in 1992, and was an instant success. These publications, which bear the Nature name but are editorially independent, now number 15 research journals and 15 review journals.

In 1996, John Maddox was knighted for his services to science, and in 2000 he was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society. It was widely recognized that he had represented the interests of science and scientists nationally and internationally through his books, editorials in Nature, articles in the press, public lectures and appearances on television and radio. On occasion, he undoubtedly caused government departments to reconsider science policy; he was also fearless in taking on what he held to be irresponsible reporting, as when he roundly defeated The Sunday Times in its espousal of a misguided and socially dangerous theory of the causation of AIDS. He retired from Nature in 1995, after a total of 22 eventful years in the editorial chair.

Maddox's several books, especially What Remains to be Discovered (Free Press, 1997), attracted wide attention and were unfailingly stimulating. He was an inveterate traveller, who seldom turned down a request to deliver a lecture or take part in a conference, wherever it might be. He was responsible for launching an accessible monthly digest of Nature (now alas defunct) for distribution in Russia and for bringing science to the celebrated literary festival at Hay-on-Wye, near his weekend cottage in Wales, where he also served as a conscientious councillor.

John Maddox was engaging and stimulating company: his range of friends extended far beyond the confines of science, and following his retirement many of his protégés in the Nature office and elsewhere remained in close touch. In his slightly hesitant and invariably courteous way, he could be severe on the workshy or complacent, but to those who shared his enthusiasm he gave unstinting support. He leaves his wife Brenda, a distinguished journalist and biographer, their son and daughter, who both followed their parents into notable careers in journalism, and a son and daughter from a previous relationship.

Walter Gratzer was the first regular News & Views correspondent appointed by John Maddox. He is at King's College London, The Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics, New Hunt's House, Guy's Campus, London SE1 1UL, UK. e-mail:


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Gratzer, W. John Maddox (1925–2009). Nature 458, 983–984 (2009).

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