Jeff Wheelwright

After Yale (1969) and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (1971), I worked in public television and as an editor for the monthly Life magazine. Since 1989 I have been out on my own. Science writing has been my specialty, but gradually the study of history and religion has liberated me from science writing.

I produced two books, Degrees of Disaster, about the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1994), and The Irritable Heart, about the Persian Gulf War illnesses (2001). The latter was supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. I turned to human genetics for my next topic. My third book was about a breast-cancer mutation that is characteristic of Jews and that came to light in a population of Catholic Hispanos in New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The mutation proved that its carriers have Jewish ancestry, at least in part. In 2008 I published an article about this, The Secret of San Luis Valley, in Smithsonian magazine, and in 2009 I was awarded a J. S. Guggenheim Fellowship to support the writing of the book. The title of the book is The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA. It was published in 2012 by W. W. Norton.

In the gaps between books I have written magazine articles about science, environment, and medicine. Below you will find links to what I consider my best pieces, most of them for Discover magazine.

My fourth book will break with science almost completely. The book is about the strip of the Holy Land between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Jews, Christians, and Muslims live here closely but uneasily. I've visited and hiked this harsh terrain four times since 2011. I've stayed in a cell at the renowned Mar Saba monastery. The area includes the route of Herman Melville's 1857 pilgrimage, a journey that led to his extremely long and knotty poem Clarel. I plan to bring Melville up to date, as it were, on the fraught politics of Palestine, while also offering ideas about monasticism and Eastern Orthodoxy that he did not consider, fixed as he was within Western Christianity and its Puritan touchstones. Here is some preliminary writing about Melville's pilgrimage.

As for my personal life, I live with my wife on the Central Coast of California, where I sing in the choir of an Episcopal church and take pleasure in the outdoors.


Magazine Writing

Quest for a Peaceful Death, about a cancer doctor who uses spirituality as a medical tool (2018)

This Old Brain, in which I have my head scanned by MRI as part of a study of the aging brain (2017)

Hemmed In, about the fragmentation of wildlife habitat in the desert Southwest (2014)

Risky Medicine, about the health risks of preventive medicine (2014)

Defining Jews, Defining a Nation: Can Genetics Save Israel?, about a genetics conference held in Herzliya, Israel (2012)

The Gray Tsunami, about the aging of the world's population, as seen from the retirement community of Sun City, Arizona (2012)

Fire in the Sky, about the role of wildfires in maintaining Arizona's mountain forests (2006)

Human, Study Thyself, about constructs of race, health, and identity in the DNA age (2005)

Ginger's Gene, about a woman with a rare disorder and the race to capitalize on the gene responsible (2004)

Welcome to Yucca Mountain, about a computer model of the proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada (2002)

Essays on the late Peter Matthiessen

Matthiessen in Paris, about my uncle's brief work for the C.I.A. at the start of his writing career (2018)

Force of Nature, about my uncle's tempestuous boyhood on Fishers Island, New York (2018)

The Wild Man Within, about my uncle's longtime fascination with Bigfoot (2019)

New York Times Op-Ed pieces

The Many Droughts of California (2015)

In a Polluted Stream, a Pathway to Peace (2013)