In a small, fluorescent-lit classroom filled with gleaming iMacs, UW-Madison journalism professor Deborah Blum is teaching students to craft prose with style.
Dressed in a soft gray cardigan accented by a colorful scarf, and with her low, slightly breathy voice, Blum is a reassuring, encouraging presence.
Her 16 students have been asked to read aloud short pieces they've written that all end with the same sentence: "I watched the light change on the water." The goal is to paint a vivid picture in just a few paragraphs.
"Obsess over the word itself, and the power of the individual word," Blum urges her undergraduates.
Blum's students would do well to listen: Her skill as a researcher and writer won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for a series of newspaper articles on primate research. In those days, she was a staff writer at the Sacramento Bee and that paper's first-ever dedicated science reporter.
Blum, 55, has earned a reputation for making science accessible and compelling. As she tells her students in Journalism 405, when she worked at the Bee, she envisioned her reader as a little old lady with pink foam curlers in her hair who hadn't had her coffee yet and didn't really care about science. Blum's goal was to grab her attention and make her care.
"We're writing to people, not the computer," she reminded her students as they sat in the glow of their monitors.
Since leaving the world of daily newspapers to teach at the UW-Madison in 1997, Blum has focused her energies on books, the most recent of which, her fifth, came out this week. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York tells the story of New York City medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler.
Together, Norris and Gettler pushed for something we now take for granted: the critical role of scientific evidence in police investigations. At a time when murder by poison was all too common - and frequently unsolvable - the pair devised ingenious methods of testing for certain compounds in the bodies of victims.
Norris wanted police officers to see the medical examiner's office as an ally, a crime-solving partner. In the fall of 1923, for example, he began regular training for detectives, introducing them to the world of the morgue and the lab.
Yet Norris and Gettler did not always receive support for their efforts. Indifference from the mayor's office forced them to spend their own money on supplies. Blum has lauded the pair as "revolutionaries who worked in civil service."
Says the author, "We all need to be reminded that one person - or, in this case, two - can really change things. We get so depressed and cynical about whether things can be changed for the good, but they can."
While New York City today presents an array of dangers, Blum argues that the 1920s were worse.
"It was a wilder place," she says. "Aside from all the poisoners, there were the bootlegging gangs, bullets in the street. I didn't even get to put it in [the book], but bodies would be left out as warnings in the streets. These bootleggers would dump people by churches for maximum effect. You'd be going to church, and there'd be a bag of body parts. Criminals felt freer to make statements with the way they killed people."
Yet while the image of crime-ridden, Prohibition-era Gotham conjures up a certain hard, gritty glamour - the stuff of gangster movies and true-crime books - Blum finds nothing romantic about poisonings.
"Poison is wicked," she attests. "It's all about, 'I'm going to make this person suffer and do it in a way that I don't get caught.' Poison deaths are horrible, and there's nothing glamorous about them."
And if it took shrewd forensic work for Norris and Gettler to test for certain poisons within the human body, it took similarly shrewd journalistic skill for Blum to tell their story.
"I discovered, with much difficulty, [that] the New York City municipal archives had kept the letters of the New York medical examiner's office from 1918 to 1935. I talked to an unfriendly archivist on the phone and said 'I'm coming out.'"
But when Blum and her graduate research assistant, Kajsa Dalrymple, arrived in New York for a week of research, they were told the archives didn't exist. Blum was insistent, and she got her quarry.
"They had all these letters and documents in archival boxes that had apparently been underground so long they were covered in a thick, black, scummy layer of dust. But they gave us all the documents, and the stuff was amazing," Blum says, even though she had to see the doctor for a persistent cough caused by the musty papers.
The archivists didn't exactly warm up to Blum and Dalrymple's visits, either. "Every day we went there, they were sorry to see us!" Blum recalls, laughing over a café au lait at La Baguette, the French bakery not far from Blum's home on Madison's west side. Blum lives with her husband, author Peter Haugen, and their younger son; the couple's older son attends the UW.
Between archives and the New York Public Library, Blum and Dalrymple conducted an intense burst of research, but also cut loose a bit after hours. Says Blum, "I was determined to drink my way through the list of 1920s cocktails, so we trolled the bars looking for Sidecars and Bee's Knees."
Still a journalist
Blum's ongoing book publishing, as well as frequent magazine and newspaper pieces (including a recent New York Times op-ed about Haiti, "Civilization on a Fault Line"), boosts her credibility as a teacher.
"Even though I'm a professor, writing's what I love best, and I couldn't teach if I couldn't still do that," she says. "It's been really gratifying to me, 12 years in [at the UW], to still feel like a journalist."
James Baughman, a former director of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication who is currently on sabbatical, lauds Blum's ability to balance writing and teaching.
"I really admire the extraordinary discipline she has," says Baughman. "That she can turn out books with such frequency is a great achievement. It's not easy; it takes a lot of self-discipline."
And unlike some who make the transition from the newsroom to the classroom, Blum has a knack for teaching, attests Baughman: "You can tell when professors care, and she does."
Blum, who grew up mainly in Louisiana and Georgia, earned her undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Georgia. After a few years in the newspaper business, she came to the UW-Madison in 1981 to get her M.A. in environmental journalism. That's when Baughman met her. "I never realized 15 years later that she would be my colleague," he says. "We're so fortunate to have her."
Blum's mission has always been to serve as a critical link between the public and the often esoteric world of science. Science affects our lives in many ways, Blum notes, and understanding it is key to making educated decisions as citizens.
In 1998, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Blum said, "We need an informed public when it comes to science and engineering, because those two are fields and forces that change people's lives. People should be given every opportunity to understand and come to terms with the nature of change."
Blum has been a leader in professional groups devoted to advancing science writing. She's a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and currently serves as the North American board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists.
Her most popular books have been Sex on the Brain and Ghost Hunters; she estimates their sales in the 50,000 range. "My books have been successful mid-list, but I'm not the Stephen King of science writing," she jokes.
Yet while Blum's work has brought acclaim, it's also brought controversy.
Many reviewers praised Love at Goon Park, Blum's book on UW primate researcher Harry Harlow, as an even-handed portrait of a troubled and controversial man. In American Scientist, reviewer Carol Tavris wrote, "Blum avoids the twin temptations of hagiography and character assassination. She gives us the strengths and weaknesses of Harlow's character and work, placing both in the context of what was happening in psychology and in the larger culture."
But some in the animal-rights community feel that Blum is far too sympathetic to Harlow and overstates the importance of his research. Rick Bogle, co-director of the local Alliance for Animals, says of Blum, "She's a great writer, but on the matter of primate experimentation, she's clearly on one side of the divide. Relative to Harlow, I think she's an apologist, and she rewrites history."
Specifically, Bogle argues that the importance of maternal affection to development was already well known by the time Harlow conducted his often cruel experiments. He thinks it's false to claim Harlow's work "was in any way responsible for the knowledge that children need physical and emotional contact with loving caregivers."
Blum sees her approach to the animal-research issue as "pretty carefully neutral" and finds fault on both sides of the divide. Some researchers are "paranoid, insular and self-protective," she says. "They talk to each other about the 'evil animal-rights community' and how threatened they feel, and they've built up a sense of risk that's greater than it actually is."
On the other hand, she says, "I don't believe we're at a point where there's no place for animal research." Until that day comes, Blum feels that the animal-rights community must be more constructive in proposing solutions. She thinks the injured party in this impasse "ends up being the animals."
Ghost Hunters, Blum's 2006 book on the search for scientific proof of the paranormal, sparked a different sort of hubbub. Her colleagues considered it a foray into bizarre, fringe pseudo-science.
"My mainstream science-writer friends said, 'There goes your career,'" Blum smiles. She recalls a particularly telling encounter at the conference of the National Association of Science Writers, of which she was president when working on Ghost Hunters. "Someone said, 'I'm so glad you're not going to be president when this comes out!'" The subject was that taboo.
But Blum believes in taking risks as a writer. "I have a lot of credibility chips. What's the point of having them if you don't cash them in once in a while? If anyone could write that book, it would be someone like me, who is pretty mainstream."
The Poisoner's Handbook represents a temporary turn away from controversial subject matter like primate research, gender differences and ghosts.
"There's a black-and-white sense of justice in this book," she says, with readers rooting for Norris and Gettler as they battle murderers through their research.
Blum's interest in the dastardly deeds of poisoners dovetails with her interest in reading mysteries. Growing up, Blum devoured her mother's collection of mystery novels, developing a taste for Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and others.
In fact, Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles - which marked the debut of Hercule Poirot - featured an heiress done in by strychnine-poisoned coffee. Blum reread it while working on The Poisoner's Handbook.
Christie had once worked in a pharmaceutical dispensary and was knowledgeable about poisons.
While Blum had toyed with writing a murder mystery herself, she ultimately stuck with her brand of heavily researched yet lively science writing. She dubs her approach "subversive education."
"I want it to be a really good story, but woven in there are some threads to illuminate a part of science I find fascinating. I wanted people to get a sense of how fascinating chemistry is."
Central to Blum's writing is a focus on the personalities that drive science, the men and women themselves. "Science is a human enterprise; that runs through all my work."
As an example, she cites the Harlow book: "Early in his career, he made some brilliant decisions, then his work got darker and darker. I wanted people to see that this is a human enterprise with a troubled, difficult, complicated man making decisions."
Brennan Nardi, editor of Madison Magazine, was a student of Blum's during Nardi's graduate school days at the UW, through the year 2000. She also assisted with research for Love at Goon Park.
Nardi praises Blum as "a consummate reporter" and inspiring mentor, particularly for women. Blum occasionally invites Nardi back to campus to speak to her students; she recalls one class in which a student asked her what made the difference between a good writer and a great one.
Momentarily drawing a blank, Nardi faltered a little, then referred the question to Blum. "She told the class that a great writer waits for the right word. Deborah sure does."
Blum's plans include an online publication called Corkboard devoted to literary journalism. The UW's Graduate School has provided her with some funding to launch it, and she wants it to host "the best of creative nonfiction," beginning with the work of UW students but expanding to include other writers in Madison and the Midwest.
Her next book may focus on the history of food-safety regulations, particularly in the 1920s, the era of The Poisoner's Handbook. "I'm so comfortable in that period right now," she notes, "and I like being able to tie the past to the present. In the 1920s, it was a pretty wild time." She says she wants the book to be "passionately pro-regulation."
Looking ever further ahead, Blum says, "After that, I'd like to do something really risky, like a memoir."
But it's safe to say that science will always be central to Blum's work. "People would find the world a much more amazing place if they understood more about science," she muses. "I do!"
Blum's earlier books
The Monkey Wars (1994)
An outgrowth of her Pulitzer-winning series on primate research for the Sacramento Bee, The Monkey Wars looks at the battle lines drawn between scientists and the animal-rights movement. "Recognizing that animal research is a complex issue, Blum allows readers to draw their own conclusions," said Library Journal.
Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women (1997)
Drawing upon human and animal studies, Blum examines the biological bases for gender differences, exploring charged topics such as aggression, infidelity, homosexuality and nurturing behavior.
Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (2002)
Perhaps the most controversial of Blum's books, Love at Goon Park profiles Harry Harlow, the UW psychology professor famous for his "wire mother/cloth mother" studies with monkeys aimed at understanding why maternal affection is so important to development.
Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (2006)
Blum delves into the paranormal in this tale of Harvard psychologist William James and his circle, who sought to uncover the truth about clairvoyance and ghosts. Calling it "compulsively readable," Entertainment Weekly raved, "After reading Blum's mesmerizing account, you might be tempted to dust off that Ouija board."
Blum on the web
"Speakeasy Science": blog.deborahblum.com
Why was this man so blue?
[I]n the chilly January of 1924, Gettler and his crew got a true oddball case: the death of the famous Blue Man. The victim had spent most of his adult life as a human curiosity exhibited at Barnum and Bailey's (the Greatest Show on Earth) as it traveled around the country. The Blue Man had recently died at Bellevue; the pathologists said his body was one of the strangest they'd ever seen stretched out on a marble table in the morgue.
The famed human oddity was 68 years old when he checked himself into the hospital, short of breath and complaining that when he lay flat he couldn't breathe at all.... His skin was so deeply blue as to appear black at a distance. His lips were blue; his tongue was blue. The scleras - what would usually be called the whites of the eyes - were also blue....
The Bellevue doctors suspected that the Blue Man, a former British army officer, had achieved fame by dosing himself with silver nitrate....
The Blue Man had firmly denied any silver exposure, denied any self-medication at all. As he'd told his circus admirers, he was a freak of nature, blue at birth. But when he died that fall - from rapidly worsening pneumonia - the pathologists had decided to take a thorough look. The autopsy showed that he was blue-silver on the inside too.... Even the brain shone silver, its familiar curves and coils slightly reflective in the brightly lit morgue....
But the silver hadn't killed the Blue Man; he had died of pneumonia. The only effect the silver doses seemed to have had was to turn him that remarkable indigo color....
Of course, the toxicology lab was now in possession of a nice quantity of pure silver. [Gettler's] co-workers took the gleaming pellets acquired from the Blue Man's body, melted them down, shaped them into a bullet, and gave it to Gettler. Just in case, his friends assured him, he ever had to analyze a vampire.
He put it on his desk. Just in case, he replied.
From The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum, Penguin Press, copyright 2010, excerpted with permission.
See for yourself
Deborah Blum will read from The Poisoner's Handbook on Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7 pm at the west-side Barnes & Noble, 7433 Mineral Point Rd.