I am once again diminished by the loss of a friend. Sir John Maddox, former editor - twice - of the prestigious science journal, Nature, has passed away. This small ceremony of acknowledging his existence is only slightly tempered by the fact that he had attained the respectable age of 83, had earned the respect, gratitude, and admiration of the scientific community, and he had given me, personally, many insights into the workings of his perceptive, considerate, and careful thought processes during my limited experience with him.
John was mostly tweed. Welsh by birth, craggy in appearance, and the very image of a scholar and intellectual, he was the sort of man for whom Harris Tweed was created. They complimented one another: tough and strong, serviceable and dependable, dignified and adaptable to the real world, and attractive in a totally practical sense, John Maddox and his favored attire worked together to present the world with their image of a British man of letters who took no nonsense, stated his case, made his point, and gave us the benefit of his wit, wisdom, and intellect, in full. It is said that his editorship of Nature was what put it in the forefront of science reporting.
I first heard from Sir John by telephone in 1988 when he surprised me with a request to join him and Walter Stewart - of the U.S. National Institutes of Health - in France, to monitor a proper assay of a homeopathic compound at the Clamart lab of Dr. Jacques Benveniste, a scientist whose very controversial paper establishing the efficacy of homeopathy had been published in Nature Magazine. John had expressed his respectful doubts about that article, which had been accepted under the condition that Nature would be permitted to examine the process whereby the Benveniste laboratory had produced their data. A little hesitantly, John had decided that he should take along a person experienced in detecting lapses of proper attention to security - in other words, possible cheating - since the results Clamart had produced seemed quite impossible unless supernatural forces were in place.
I had hardly accepted this interesting invitation, when the phone rang again and I heard Jacques Benveniste himself enthusiastically welcoming my coming participation in the tests. The rest of this story will await my next book, "A Magician in the Laboratory."
Stewart and I simply basked in the warm presence of John Maddox. We watched as he carefully recorded the results of our inquiry, questioned those others involved, and consulted with the two of us on our observations. We saw a true scientist at work, a caring and careful academic who respected the calling he'd embraced, rankled at lacunae he found, and was seriously concerned that we were seeing exactly the problems he'd suspected in the production of the data reported to Nature by Benveniste. I know that John was distressed to prepare and publish our report, but the integrity of science trumped any problems he had.
My experience knowing and working with John Maddox was a sort of slow-motion roller-coaster ride during which Walter Stewart and I hung on while John piloted us through the maze of errors and omissions we found. Our regret over the final Benveniste report was very real, and particularly so for John, a noble man, a fine gentleman, and a dedicated scientist. I am a much better person for having met him.
In closing, I recall that I phoned John in 1995 when I heard that he'd become Sir John. He thanked me for the call, and told me, "Well, it's all well and good, but I'm a little uneasy about it. I'm very Republican, you know." I suspect that whenever I see Harris Tweed from now on, I'll remember the wit, laughter, and delight that was the John Maddox I knew.