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Sketches of My Books

RX for Survival: Why We Must Rise to the Global Health Challenge

A look at what is working in global health around the world, and why we have cause for hope.

Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation

Knopf, 2003

Emerging out of the era of the robber barons and Theodore Roosevelt's desire to "civilize capitalism," the Food and Drug Administration was created to stop the trade in adulterated meats and quack drugs. In the almost one hundred years since, it has evolved from a squad of eleven inspectors dogging dishonest tradesmen into America's most important regulatory agency, keeping tabs on the products of about 95,000 businesses and more than $1 trillion worth of goods annually.

This book shows how the agency combats self-serving political and industrial interests and protects Americans from hazardous medicines, medical devices, and foodstuffs while enforcing rigorous scientific standards. It describes how controlled scientific experiments became the basis -- explicitly and legally -- for making government policy. It was the first time any nation had done this, and led the way to using science as a basis for policy around the world.

Named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote in the New Republic that it is “a genuinely important book, rich in history, accurate in detail, unflinching in analysis.” Dr. Sherwin Nuland in the New York Times Book Review said that Hilts “writes with both a historian’s attention to dissection and analysis and with the flourish and vividness of an experienced journalist aware of the drama inherent in the story he is telling.”

Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-Up

Addison-Wesley, 1996

This book is an investigation of the tobacco industry's forty-year disinformation campaign on cigarette smoking, from Hilts, who was the reporter who broke the story of the tobacco companies' thousands of pages of secret documents. His reports were among those that started the "tobacco wars" in the United States, which continue today in the courts.

The book includes:
--A detailed picture of how one company markets cigarettes to children as young as twelve years old, along with the surveys it uses with these youngsters to determine what they want.
--Material never before published on R.J. Reynolds' marketing to what they euphemistically call "young adults."
--Fresh documents not found in any other book, including the deposition of Brown & Williamson researcher Jeffry Wigand, the statements of three Philip Morris executives who broke ranks, and details from inside the ABC-Philip Morris lawsuit that had not been published elsewhere.
--A description of the fakery used to make modern cigarettes. Only about half of a modern cigarette is tobacco leaf; the rest includes everything from scraps off the floor to ammonia.

Smokescreen was selected as one of the “ten best books of the year” by Business Week, and was a finalist in the London Financial Times global business book awards.

"A penetrating look behind the facade of Big Tobacco." New York Review of Books

"A vivid and compelling job of investigative reporting...A wonderful crime tale." San Francisco Chronicle

"Accessible and exciting...The book unwinds almost like a Greek tragedy." Business Week

Memory's Ghost: The Nature of Memory and The Strange Tale of Mr. M


In 1953, experimental brain surgery was performed on a young man named Henry M. It was a time when lobotomies were in fashion, and Henry's doctor speculated that his epilepsy could be cured by a radical operation. Two holes were drilled into Henry's skull, above his eyes, and through silver straws the hippocampus--a grayish-pink, seahorse-shaped bit whose function was unknown--was sucked out from within his brain. When Henry recovered, it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. He could talk and read and write. But when asked where he was, or who the people were at his bedside, he did not know. Nurses could speak to him and return a moment later, only to find he had no memory of them. He could read the same newspaper over and over, each time as if it was his first. He is perpetually waking from a dream, suspended in uncertainty about what day it is and what lies ahead.

Henry, though he has been shielded by researchers and access to him strict regulated, has become over the past fifty years the most studied human in the history of science. His misadventure has become an extraordinary fount of knowledge about what memory is and how it works. In this book, Philip Hilts, one of a small number of people who have had access to him, tells Henry's remarkable story.

But Henry's story is only part of the book. While telling of Henry's life, Hilts takes the reader on a fascinating trip down Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, in search of Mnemosyne, the goddess of mind and imagination. Memory's Ghost travels from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where scientists map the electrical activity of neurons in sea snails, in order to study the birth of thought and memory, to the birth of civilization, when ancient people began to puzzle out the meaning of memory. The book follows the human study of memory from Plato and St. Augusting to Samuel Johnson, Proust and William James.

The book was named a New York Times Book Review "Notable Book of the Year" during 1995.

Critics' Comments
"This stimulating, resonant beautifully written investigation looks at memory through the multiple prisms of science,literature and history." --Publisher's Weekly

"Few tales are more fascinating than that of Henry M." -- Howard Gardner,The New York Times Book Review.

Scientific Temperaments: Three Lives in Contemporary Science


An engaging look at the human side of science and scientists. The scientific personality laid bare in narratives of events in the lives of scientists in three very different fields. How do differences of style, ambition and even idiosyncrasies make up that elusive quality called the scientific temperament? The book follows three major figures in the fields of particle physics, molecular biology and artificial intelligence--together representing the cycle in science of matter, life and mind.

The book was a finalist for the National Book Award.

"Nothing short of amazing...This book is absolutely diamond bright." --The Los Angeles Times.

"Elegantly written... Endearing, feisty, amusing, even spiritual-- all the things we too often believe science is not." --Washington Post

"In the tradition of James Watson's The Double Helix and Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine...Hilts has a keen eye for the human drama of science." --San Francisco Chronicle.

"In spare but vigorous prose, Mr. Hilts chronicles the experience of being a scientist, with all its successes and failures -the overwhelming pressure of competition... the almost unfathomable regret of realizing that a mistaken assumption has nullified years of painstaking effort...'' --The New York Times.

The book was a Book of the Month Club Alternate and it was name one of Science 82 magazine’s five best books of the year.