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Science writer is quite the specimen himself: He's 94

The San Francisco Chronicle's David Perlman churned out 111 stories last year and is still going strong. Not bad for someone born before the discovery of penicillin and Pluto.

February 21, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

There was no such thing as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome when Perlman began covering science and medicine; he would go on to write more than 300 stories about the disease that broke his adopted city's heart.

Somewhere in his messy cubicle at Fifth Street and Mission he keeps a copy of his first AIDS story — among the earliest published, penned before the disease even had a name.

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control ran an item about an outbreak of a mysterious lung ailment.

"In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California," the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report began. "Two of the patients died."

Perlman was a regular reader of the report. When he saw the piece, he immediately called Dr. Selma Dritz, assistant director of the communicable disease bureau at the San Francisco health department.

"Hey, is this happening here?" he asked. "Oh, yeah," Dritz said. "We've had maybe five cases too, which have not yet been reported to the MMWR."

The short article Perlman wrote was buried deep inside the June 6 paper: "A mysterious outbreak of a sometimes fatal pneumonia among gay men has occurred in San Francisco and several other major cities, it was revealed yesterday."

He didn't bother to put his byline on it. At the time, he said, the cases were "just a curiosity."

Twenty years later, his anniversary story about the "worst pandemic in modern history" cataloged the damage — "nearly 22 million people are now dead worldwide, and the count grows higher every day; more than 36 million humans are infected with the deadly virus but still alive."

In 2008, Perlman wrote Dritz's obituary.

Perlman has outlived colleagues he has written with, scientists he has written about, Anne, his wife of 61 years, who died in 2002. He is dating again. (In fact, at a recent wedding, he caught the bouquet.)

"I'm so lucky still to be able to do something, to do what I do.... I'm still pretty OK," he said. "Anyway, as long as they'll have me [at the Chronicle], I'll stick around."

Dr. J. Michael Bishop, chancellor emeritus at UC San Francisco and a winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, describes Perlman as "an iconic figure in American science writing." His curiosity is "insatiable," his energy "even at 94 is remarkable." Perlman, he said, "knows how to get to the essence of the science problem and explain that in terms that are clear to the general public."

Perlman's favorite kind of story is equal parts physical adventure, scientific discovery and opportunity to watch brilliant researchers at work.

He embarked on one such journalistic jaunt in 1977, the only reporter on board when the Galapagos Hydrothermal Expedition discovered deep-sea geysers 8,250 feet below the ocean's surface, 400 miles west of Ecuador.

Scientists on the research vessels Knorr and Lulu were pretty sure the vents would be surrounded by a barren, underwater desert. Instead, they found a wild habitat teeming with crabs, mussels and tall, white-stalked tube worms with bright red tops.

Perlman wrote his stories on a portable Olivetti typewriter. Using a Xerox telecopier scanner, the Knorr's radio operator sent the exclusive dispatches using a single-sideband radio to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Staffers there forwarded them to the Chronicle via Western Union.

"They have pinpointed geysers of hot water venting from fissures in fresh lava and sending warm plumes of brine shimmering upward into the near-freezing lower levels of the sea," Perlman wrote in a March 9, 1977, story whose headline boasted "Astounding Undersea Discoveries."

Woods Hole would later call it a "scientific discovery that changed the world."

On a much more recent adventure, Perlman camped in the Ethiopian desert with a team of fossil-hunting paleoanthropologists who would go on to discover and assemble the partial skeleton of a pre-human creature known as Ardipithecus ramidus — a.k.a. "Ardi" — who lived 4.4 million years ago.

The researchers were working in the Afar desert, the birthplace of humankind, a two-day drive from Addis Ababa. Daytime temperatures soared to triple digits. At night, tents were zipped against scorpions and venomous snakes.

The team was protected by guards toting AK-47s, Perlman wrote, "against whom or what was never clear — but huge lion paw prints spotted at one lunch site were clear hints of danger."

He was 88.

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