John Maddox, Britain’s greatest science journalist

Many of Britain’s science journalists will be feeling sad – and nostalgic – today after hearing that John Maddox died on Sunday at the age of 83. He was the most influential science editor of the 20th century and created a blueprint for the modern research journal.

In two spells as editor of Nature, from 1966 to 1973 and 1980 to 1995, Maddox converted a staid journal, for which the word “venerable” might have been invented, into a lively news-seeking and news-making publication without sacrificing its scientific authority.

Maddox had earlier made his mark in newspaper journalism, as science correspondent of The Manchester Guardian from 1955 to 1964, where he developed a campaigning style and an appetite for scoops that he carried over to Nature.

His appointment at the Guardian came when science correspondents were still a novelty. The late 1950s were an optimistic period for science and technology, with newspapers showing gung-ho enthusiasm for aerospace, astronomy, nuclear power and medical research. But Maddox managed to delve into the dark side of technology, including a ground-breaking investigation of the 1957 Windscale reactor fire.

He left the Guardian in 1964 for the Nuffield Foundation, where he spent two years leading an influential project to update the school science curriculum (I was to be a beneficiary of his work, studying the Nuffield Physical Sciences A-level course). Maddox returned to Nuffield in the 1970s, serving as the foundation’s director in between his two spells editing Nature.

When Maddox arrived at Nature, the journal was approaching the centenary of its foundation and retained a gentlemanly, old-fashioned aura. It still attracted some first-rate research papers (such as the one by Crick and Watson announcing the discovery of the DNA double helix) but its owners, the Macmillan family, wanted Maddox to shake up the publication in the face of growing competition. Science, its long-term American rival, was benefiting from the shift in scientific power from Europe to the US.

Maddox obliged by transforming the slow and somewhat arbitrary process by which Nature selected papers for publication. He set up an efficient peer review process for routine submissions – though he was quite happy for important papers to be whisked through on his say-so without formal review – and actively solicited contributions from the world’s top scientists. At the same time Maddox gave Nature its first news and features pages, and built a young team of editors and writers who would go on to fill many roles in science journalism elsewhere (including my FT colleagues Alan Cane and Nick Timmins).

In his second term as editor, Maddox was even more determined to raise his journal’s profile. The most controversial coup was first to publish a paper by the late Jacques Benveniste, a French immunologist, who purported to demonstrate the scientific basis of homeopathy – a form of alternative medicine scorned by most scientists – and then to make a highly publicised visit to Benveniste’s lab in the company of James Randi, a famous magician and fraud-buster, who revealed that the experiment was based on a scientific illusion.

Maddox had grown up near Swansea, the son of furnaceman in an aluminium smelter, and his favourite retreat was a cottage deep in rural Wales. But there was little trace of a Welsh accent left by the time Maddox retired finally from Nature. The most distinctive feature of his voice then was the gravely timbre given by a lifetime’s smoking and drinking. When Maddox wrote his flowery but elegant editorials – late in the evening with the nominal deadline already passed – cigarettes and red wine were the standard accompaniment.

Maddox was knighted in 1995 and made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society – a far rarer distinction – in 2000. He is survived by his wife, the biographer Brenda Maddox, and four grown-up children (including Bronwen Maddox, former FT environment correspondent and now chief foreign commentator of The Times).

John Maddox © The Royal Society

John Maddox © The Royal Society

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.