Volume 74, Number 42 | February 23 - March 01, 2005


Helena Curtis, 81, wrote ‘elegant’ science textbooks

Helena Curtis, a noted science writer and college biology textbook author, died on Feb. 11 at the age of 81. She was a resident of Sag Harbor and Greenwich Village.

Her first book, “The Viruses,” published in 1965 by Natural History Press, was followed in 1968 by “The Marvelous Animals.” In 1966, she was signed to a contract for a college biology textbook by Worth Publishers. The idea of a textbook written not by an academic, but by a professional science writer, in consultation with biology experts, was at that time revolutionary and greeted with skepticism. However, when Curtis’s “Biology” was published in 1968, it received a laudatory review in Scientific American by Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria. Through five editions in English it has sold 1.3 million copies. A shorter book, “Invitation to Biology,” has sold 600,000 copies. Both books have enjoyed success in Spanish and Italian editions, with more than 1 million of the books sold in Italian. On the later editions of both books, she was joined by N. Sue Barnes as co-author. Curtis also co-authored “Biology of Plants.”

Curtis’s books and her articles for encyclopedias, journals and magazines were praised for their scientific accuracy, elegant writing and wit. In 1988, Professor John O. Corliss of the University of Maryland said, with regard to the fifth edition of “Biology”: “The writing is about the closest to poetry that a scientific textbook can ever hope to get. It is thoroughly enjoyable, stimulating, imaginative, yet beautifully factual.”

Curtis grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Her family moved around quite a bit when she was a child, since her father was a U.S. Navy commodore; for a few years, he was commandant of Guantanamo Bay.

A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Curtis came to New York to pursue a career in science writing. She held a master’s degree in the subject from Columbia University, which she earned while working as a freelance writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Subsequently, she worked as a writer for The Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) and for the New York NYU-Bellevue Medical Center.

In 1954, she bought her family’s house on Barrow St.

In recognition of her contribution to biology education, Curtis was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988, and was a longtime member of the National Association of Science Writers. She was also, for some 35 years, an active member of the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons.

Curtis was predeceased by her husband, Clinton Curtis, and her parents, Caroline and Commodore Mark L. Hersey. She is survived by her son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Libby Curtis of Key West, Fla.; her daughter, Sarah T. Curtis, Ph.D., of New York City; her grandsons, Clinton Curtis, a musical theater major at New York University; Daniel Curtis, a student at Amherst College; Doran Curtis, of Key West; and T.J. Curtis, a student at John Jay College in New York City; her sister, Marcia Rogers, of Middletown, R.I.; and her nieces and nephew: Caroline Rogers, Ph.D., Helene Rogers and Paul Rogers.

In accordance with her wishes, there will be no services. Contributions in her memory may be made to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, P.O. Box 901, Wainscott, NY 11975.

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