Lily Kay, 53, life sciences historian


Dr. Lily E. Kay, a visiting scholar in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and one of the outstanding historians of biology of her generation, died on December 18 of cancer.

Dr. Kay's work drew from multiple disciplines to understand science in its many social and cultural dimensions. Her most recentbook, Who Wrote the Book of Life? (Stanford University Press, 1999), traced the efforts of biologists, biochemists and information scientists to explain the genome as an information system written in DNA code. Dr. Kay showed how the "code" is not really a code and thus why cryptoanalytic techniques failed, and how the genetic "code" was eventually broken instead by biochemists who only reluctantly translated their work into the metaphor of code because that language had become the only way to get a hearing.

Her earlier book, The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rise of the New Biology, has become a classic account. When it first appeared, it too was controversial but also received accolades from scientists such as Joshua Lederberg and Linus Pauling. Her views were always sharply argued, holding to account both extreme biologial reductionism and legacies of eugenicist views in contemporary biology.

Born in Krakow, Poland in 1947 to concentration camp survivors, Dr. Kay moved with her parents to Israel and then came to the United States in 1960. After she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1969, she taught high school physics in Pittsburgh and was a research associate in biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh from 1974-77. In 1977 she became a senior research assistant at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, working on the molecular biology of viruses. She earned a PhD in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University in 1986.

After two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, she joined the history of science faculty at the University of Chicago, and in 1989 she began an eight-year stint on MIT's faculty in STS, which had just established a new PhD program. In recent years, she worked as an independent scholar, with guest appointments at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

When she died, Dr. Kay was working on a book on the MIT neuroscientist Warren S. McCulloch and the fields of research he helped spawn: serial computing, artificial intelligence and models of brain function.

A funeral was held on December 21 at the Levine Chapels in Brookline. Survivors include relatives Kurt and Paulette Olden of New York City, and three former husbands. Donations in her memory may be made to the American Cancer Society, 20 Speen St., Framingham, MA 01701.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2001.


Topics: Obituaries

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