Friday, April 28, 2006

A Sad Day for Science Writers: Laura Van Dam's Obituary

Laura Van Dam was amazing; a tireless advocate of science writing and science writers, a brilliant woman -- she died this week after fighting lymphoma for years. This is a huge loss to science writing, and the many people like me who counted her as a friend. I just visited the website for the National Association of Science Writers -- which Laura was president of until her death. NASW members have posted incredible comments about Laura that really show the amazing impact she's had ... so many wonderful writers and reporters (Laurie Garrett, Joe Palca, Deborah Blum, Natalie Angier, Robin Marantz Henig, and on and on) credit Laura for encouraging -- and in some cases discovering -- them and their work. As do I. Laura and I spent many hours talking about my articles and my book over the years: She encouraged me when I hit hard spots, pushed me to write the best book I could, believed in it and me even when others didn't. The tragedy of young death robbing everyone of such a bright future applies to Laura in spades.

Her approach to the end was amazing and thoughtful. About two months ago, she called me to talk about her death. She hoped it wouldn't come for a few more years, because she desperately wanted to see her son off to college. Laura's own mother died after Laura went away to school; she knew that would probably be easier for him than the alternative. But she also knew the end might happen sooner than that. We talked for almost two hours about life and death, about living with brain damage (my father has written quite a bit about his own experience with brain damage, and Laura's illness caused extensive brain damage). All I can say is, Laura was one amazing woman many many people will miss -- those who knew her will miss her energy, her excitement and brilliance. Those who didn't know her will miss everything she did behind the scenes for the science writers of the world.

If you're an NASW member, I urge you to read the tributes to her on the NASW site. Her obituary and the many responses to it are there:

"An independent book editor, Laura spent many years as a senior editor with Houghton-Mifflin, where she specialized in books related to science, technology, medicine, and health. She worked with authors including Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography), Daniel Schacter (The Seven Sins of Memory), J. Richard Gott (Time Travel Through Einstein's Universe), and Steve Olson (Mapping Human History, a National Book Award finalist) ... Laura served as a senior editor with the MIT publication Technology Review and as a newspaper reporter.

She is survived by her husband, Howard Saxner, and son, David Saxner. A memorial service is planned for Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. Donations may be made in Laura's name to the Pappas Center for Neuro-Oncology c/o Massachusetts General Hospital, Development Office, 165 Cambridge St., Suite 600, Boston, MA 02114."

There's also a wonderful detailed obituary in the Boston Globe.

Happy travels, Laura ... we'll miss you.

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Anonymous Annita Sawyer said...

I learned of Laura’s death just yesterday, and your words - along with the photograph of Laura - comfort me. I've read them - and stared at them - several times. I was one of Laura’s clients in her recent freelance editing capacity. I’m a sixty-three year old clinical psychologist who is new to the world of writing, and Laura was a part of my extraordinary journey. I’m unknown, and insignificant, and in Connecticut, yet Laura couldn’t have treated me with greater respect, or made me feel more important. We became friends. Because I’m not part of the publishing community, I’ve come to this sad news late and by myself. To be able to read about Laura and the ways in which you and others have loved her and been touched by her, too, is a gift. I thank you.

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very touching obit and a sad story about a life cut too short. Thank you for it and good look in what seems like a brilliant career.

A reader

10:45 AM  
Blogger True Blue Dan said...

I learned of Laura's death on Sept. 12, 2008, over two years after the fact.

I knew Laura only briefly. We worked at Camp Speers Eljabar in the summer of 1975 and stayed in touch for a few years after.

We both ended up in the Boston area. Shortly after she arrived, she invited me to a gathering at the Garden in the Woods (in Framingham MA), describing it as a magical place. I had to decline. On learning that she's gone, my regret at missing that gathering - nearly 30 years ago - has brought a lump to my throat.

That's the best testament I can offer to the brightness that was Laura van Dam. Someone who knew her briefly, 30 years ago, still remembers her and is deeply saddened to learn of her passing.

10:01 PM  

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