New York Times
June 2 2003
Dorothy Nelkin, 69, Expert on Society and Science, Dies
By ERIC NAGOURNEY
Dorothy Nelkin, a New York University sociologist who chronicled the uneasy
relationship between science and society, died on Wednesday at her home in
Manhattan. She was 69.
The cause was cancer, the university said.
Professor Nelkin, a prolific author who began her research at Cornell in 1963,
was a close observer of science and how it is perceived - and, often,
misperceived - by the public.
As a practical matter, that often involved giving warnings about the potential
dangers posed by scientific advances that proceed unchecked by careful
discussion of their implications. In an interview last year, she said it was
hardly surprising that many nonscientists were unnerved by the
commercialization of the human body, as scientists seek patents for genes and
"If you are looking at the public image of the mad scientist or the scientist
out of control," she said, "the issue of patenting has aroused a lot of
concerns. The public concern doesn't just come out of space. It comes out of
real things that are happening."
But Professor Nelkin, whose husband of 50 years, Mark Nelkin, is a physicist,
was no enemy of science. Although her academic background was in the humanities
and the social sciences, she was generally comfortable in the world of science,
especially biology. Still, she kept her intellectual distance, believing that
lay writers often had a tendency to lionize science.
"She always saw science in relationship to society, and she never went native,"
said Prof. Troy Duster, a sociologist at N.Y.U.
Dorothy Wolfers Nelkin was born on July 30, 1933, in Boston and raised in
Brookline, Mass. She earned her bachelor's degree at Cornell, where she met her
husband. In addition to Mr. Nelkin, she is survived by a daughter, Lisa Nelkin
of Baltimore; a sister, Nancy Wolfers of London; and a granddaughter.
Although she never earned more than a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Corn
ell, Professor Nelkin rose to hold one of N.Y.U.'s highest ranks, university
She wrote or co-wrote 26 books, including "Selling Science: How the Press
Covers Science and Technology," "The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon"
and "Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age." She
also served as an adviser to the federal government's Human Genome Project. She
was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983.
Much of her work focused on the friction between science and technology and the
public. In the early years, she might have looked at how the location for a
nuclear plant was chosen or workers' attitudes toward their safety. Over the
past decade, though, her focus narrowed on DNA breakthroughs and their effect
on the public. She recently began exploring the aesthetic of DNA, and its
increasing depiction in art and popular culture.
The goal, colleagues said, was to lend perspective to a public alternately
smitten and scared by scientific advances.
Professor Nelkin believed that the science would be unable to live up to the
hopes floated by its promoters, many of whom stood to make a lot of money.
She worried, too, about the civil liberties issues raised by efforts to amass
databases of people's DNA for crime-fighting purposes. And she was a firm
skeptic about efforts to link behavior, especially criminal behavior, to
"By making social factors irrelevant," she wrote, "genetic explanations of
crime provide convenient excuses for those seeking to dismantle the welfare