FEATURE

The Constant Chronicler

At 98, David Perlman ’39CC, ’40JRN, a pioneer of science journalism, may just be the oldest working reporter in America.

by Ian Scheffler ’12CC Published Spring 2017
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Photographs by Victor Wang

For Perlman, science journalism has always been about making the complex simple. “We try to explain what the science is in terms that people can understand,” Perlman says. Recently, he wrote an article on three newly discovered species of salamander. “I got a heck of a lot of e-mails,” he says, “people sending me photographs of salamanders in their own backyards.” 

Many were convinced their salamanders belonged to the new species. But that was unlikely: as Perlman reported, the new salamanders, which belong to the genus Thorius, are already in danger of extinction. 

Extinctions, diseases, climate change — in his seven decades of reporting, Perlman has covered some profoundly discouraging topics. Yet his outlook is one of optimism: progress is the general rule. “Everything that I’ve covered I’ve seen moving forward,” he says. AIDS is a case in point: in 1981, when he wrote his first article about a rare form of pneumonia appearing in gay men, AIDS didn’t have so much as a name. 

“If there could be said to be founders of science journalism, he is definitely one of them.”

“At the beginning of that mess,” Perlman says, “things looked so damn hopeless.” One of his colleagues, Randy Shilts, the pioneering gay journalist and activist, would die of AIDS. (“He was a committed guy and a hell of a reporter,” Perlman says of Shilts, who wrote the bestselling And the Band Played On, the definitive history of the epidemic’s early days.) 

“And yet eventually,” Perlman notes, “the AIDS virus was isolated, the politics were overcome, and now we have all these anti-retroviral drugs. It hasn’t been that long since 1981.” 

 

In 2002, Perlman lost his wife of more than sixty years, Anne, a poet and journalist whose work appeared in the Paris Review and Ploughshares, among other publications. He has three children, two of whom are retired, and three grandchildren. He also has a dinner date. “I don’t know what the term is these days,” says Perlman. “I have a very dear friend.”

He knows his scientific terms, though — and isn’t afraid to use them. “David has schooled me a few times in the decade or so I’ve been his editor,” says the Chronicle’s Terry Robertson. “Dumbing down science for the sake of the readers insults their intelligence. He holds fast to that.” 

And given what he sees as the anti-science bent of the new administration, Perlman says good reporting is more important than ever. “I’m asking scientists of all kinds, particularly climate scientists, about their own fears,” he says. One of his chief concerns is President Trump’s budgeting for the satellites run by NASA and NOAA that track climate change. “Science is not — should not — be a controversial subject,” Perlman says. 

 

As for his longevity and productivity, Perlman doesn’t necessarily have a scientific explanation. He attributes his staying power mostly to luck. “I don’t do anything I’m supposed to as far as health,” Perlman says. “I don’t exercise. I don’t watch what I eat.” 

What he does do is stay engaged. Cane and notebook in hand, Perlman still attends science conferences, looking for stories to write. 

“Every time I’ve written a story,” he says, “I’ve learned something.”

Some things never get old. 


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