An open-heart surgery inspired Victor McElheny to write about science. Sixty years later, he’s still at it.
In the fall of 1957, budding reporter Victor McElheny saw a beating heart for the first time. It was still pulsing in the open chest of a patient during a live broadcast of the experimental procedure. A machine began to take over the heart’s functions—collecting blood, removing carbon dioxide, adding oxygen, and then pumping blood back into the body. Once the beating stopped, the surgeon scraped out accumulations in critical arteries and reduce blockages. Afterward, the machine transferred control back to the patient’s body. The heart found its beat. And McElheny found a beat of his own.
For the past six decades, McElheny has written about many miraculous moments in science, from the lunar landing to the sequencing of the human genome. Throughout his career, he has reported for some of the country’s leading newspapers and magazines, authored several books, and founded MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program. But McElheny points back to that remarkable experience—witnessing an open-heart surgery—as the spark. He was struck by the power of science and all that it could do for humanity. And he wanted to write about it.
McElheny jumped into journalism young. Around the age of fourteen, he began working for his high school newspaper and eventually became president, during his senior year in 1953. During his undergraduate studies at Harvard, he worked as a reporter and editor for the Harvard Crimson, where he first began to write about technical subjects for popular readers.
After graduation, McElheny found himself covering the medical beat for a newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina. The local hospital, then called Charlotte Memorial, was known for its leadership in heart operations, and McElheny reported on these advances in medical care. He was soon invited to view a live procedure: A team in Philadelphia conducted open-heart surgery while a panel of experts provided live commentary. In 1969, McElheny noted that it was the first science story that truly excited him.
“It deeply impressed me that such a drastic operation was being undertaken to help a patient,” says McElheny today. “That made a lasting impression on me.”
For decades thereafter, McElheny remained interested in heart disease and surgeries, keeping clips of related news stories. But he also began to cover scientific fields beyond medicine and went on to become the first European correspondent for Science magazine, the science editor for The Boston Globe, and a technology reporter at The New York Times. Whether he was writing about science policy, environmental health risks, or advances in astronomy, McElheny found deep connections between divergent scientific fields.
“The same computing that gets you to the moon is also being used to do a great deal of work in digesting information about the human genome,” he says. “These kinds of capacities affect fields that are wildly different, and that’s very exciting.”
Now, at 82 years old, McElheny continues to explore the scientific subjects that fascinate him.
“Science is exploding,” he says. “It has been for several centuries. It is incredibly varied, incredibly rich, incredibly exciting … [to] learn about the depth to which we can go in understanding.”
This year, McElheny also helped celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, a respected mid-career fellowship that McElheny founded in 1983 and directed for fifteen years. As part of the anniversary celebrations, the program launched an award in his name. The Victor K. McElheny Award will annually recognize an outstanding work of science, technology, environmental, or public health journalism at the local or regional level.
To McElheny, this award is a meaningful way to support emerging reporters who are passionate about science. As he said at the celebration held in September, “We can think of this prize as an encouragement to one of our most precious attributes: curiosity.”
Even after many years in the field, McElheny has not lost his curiosity about the world around him.
“Whether we’re talking about the stars, the Earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, or other planets, our level of understanding is increasing all the time,” McElheny says. “There’s always more—a lot more—for science journalists to do.”
As for matters of the heart, McElheny continued to report on the genetics of heart disease and cholesterol from time to time throughout his career. In 1989, he himself underwent open-heart surgery, thirty-two years after witnessing the live operation as a young reporter.
McElheny was amazed by the surgery he saw in 1957, but admits it was quite different to experience it firsthand. After all, he says, “it seems a little more drastic when it’s going to happen to you.”