Robert Kanigel

Robert Kanigel

Fellow: Awarded 2008
Field of Study: General Nonfiction

Competition: US & Canada

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 Once, long ago, I was a mechanical engineer. I attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City, graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1966 with an engineering degree. I moved to Baltimore, held three engineering jobs there over three years, then quit.

During late 1969, I lived in Paris and traveled in Europe, then came back to Baltimore early the following year. I was 23. One day, walking along 25th Street, I passed the offices of an underground newspaper named Harry. I went in and talked to the editor about some ideas I had about those tumultuous times. With the editor’s encouragement, I wrote three essays, none of them good, all of which he published. On the strength of this experience I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

My first paid articles appeared in Baltimore Magazine and in the Sunday magazine of the Baltimore Sun. Thanks to editors Bill Stump and Hal Williams for having confidence in me back then.

From late 1971 to 1974 I lived in San Francisco. Somehow, I got it into my head that I needed to write a book about cities and city living. I wrote it. It was bad. But the title was good, City Sunrise: Waking Up from the Suburban Dream. Mercifully, it was never published.

In late 1975, I returned to Baltimore, where I lived and worked—always as a freelancer—until 1999. Early during this period, in 1976, I met Elise Hancock, editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, for whom I wrote dozens of articles over the next fifteen years. About Chesapeake Bay, medical student life, war games, male contraceptives, memory, astronauts, quasars, freelance intellectuals, slide rules, playing the French horn, and many other subjects of the sort that constitute the life of a great university.

From Elise Hancock—who twice during this period, in 1980 and 1988, won the Sibley Award, as editor of the nation’s best university magazine—I learned more about writing than from anyone else. I wrote the forward for her book, Ideas Into Words, published in 2003 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

For a while I wrote for Jewish publications, on subjects like the Jews of Montreal, H. L. Mencken, Jewish veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the strange ritual fence known as the eruv—within whose boundaries observant Jews are permitted to carry personal belongings on the sabbath.

Beginning in the 1980s, my work began appearing in national publications like the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Wilson Quarterly, Science 85,  Mosaic, Hippocrates, American Health, Psychology Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Observer, Human Behavior, California Living, Science Illustrated, and Harvard Magazine, and I received a number of awards, including an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant (2005), the Class of 1960 Innovation in Education Award from MIT (2003) and MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences research grants (2003 and 2008), the Elizabeth Eisenstein Prize of the  National Coalition of Independent Scholars (1994), the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemnistry for the Public from the  American Chemical Society (1989), the gold award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education for the best article of 1988, and a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (1992). In addition, the American Society of Journalists and Authors honored me with its Outstanding Article award in both 1989 and 1992, and named me Author of the Year in 1998. Over the years I’ve had about 400 articles, essays, and book reviews published.

After the City Sunrise debacle, I thought I’d sworn off writing books. But an article I wrote for Elise appearing in the December 1981 issue of the magazine wouldn’t let me go. It was called "The Mentor Chain," and it was about the powerful role of mentor relationships among elite scientists. I wrote a proposal and my agent at the time, Charlotte Sheedy, shopped it around. Ultimately I landed a contract with Macmillan. It appeared in 1986 as Apprentice to Genius.

Apprentice to Genius was no great commercial success (though it’s still in print). But it sold me forever on what writers sometimes call "the long form," meaning long articles and especially books. Since then, I’ve written the other books described on my website; my agent for many years, Vicky Bijur, represented most of them. Representing my new book—its working title is The Land of the Young and it’s under contract with Knopf—is Michael Carlisle of Inkwell Management. For a listing of all my books please see the Bibliography.

Beginning in the 1980s, I taught writing classes, first in the evening school of Johns Hopkins University, then in the University of Baltimore’s Yale Gordon College of Liberal Arts. In 1999 I accepted a position as professor of science writing at MIT. There, I helped start its Graduate Program in Science Writing, which I directed for seven years.

I also give talks, lectures, and classes on both writing and the subjects of my writing.



Profile photograph by Felix Rust.

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