Monday, March 23, 2009

Nicholas Hughes, Biologist

When I heard last night that Nicholas Hughes, the son of poetic legends Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, had committed suicide, two thoughts came to mind.

One, obviously: some families seem born to grief.

In 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven. Nicholas was just over one; his older sister Frieda was almost three. At the time of her death, Ted Hughes had been having an affair with a woman named Assia Weevil, with whom he would have a daughter, Alexandra; she would move in with the family and care for Frieda and Nicholas.

In 1969, Assia, supposedly long haunted by Sylvia, killed Alexandra and herself in a manner similar to Sylvia's death: after dragging a bed into the kitchen and sealing off the doors, she sedated the little girl, turned on the gas jets, and then got in bed with her.

Nicholas was seven. Awful lot of death to grow up with.

Second thought: is depression hereditary? Is that why he took his life? Was it predestined? Did the fact that both parents were literary giants have any impact?

On the last question, Dermot Cole's fine farewell in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner suggests that Nicholas Hughes was not someone who toiled in the darkness of his parent's shadows.

After earning a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree at Oxford University in England, where Nick spent his childhood, Hughes became a prominent fisheries scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he earned a doctorate in 1991 and joined the faculty.

He made lasting friendships in Fairbanks with those who shared his inventive interests in such varied pursuits as stream ecology, pottery, woodworking, boating, bicycling, gardening and cooking the perfect pecan pie. Nick guided many people in the winter to spots along the Tanana to savor the art of burbot fishing through the ice.

He spent countless summer hours in his research of grayling and salmon in the Chena River, exhibiting all the patience and wonder that defines a great fisherman. One of his innovations was rigging underwater cameras to get a three-dimensional view of the fish feeding in the passing current.

Many of the best days of his life were in the company of his partner Christine Hunter, also a biologist. He resigned from the faculty more than two years ago, but continued his research.

The focus of Nick’s professional life, one of his friends said, dealt with what might appear to be a simple question, but was extraordinarily complex: “Why do fish prefer one position over another?”

The logic of his research was that the combination of water flow and the streambed guide the way natural selection influences the behavior of individual salmon, grayling, trout and other species. And the behavior of individual fish can help explain population dynamics and other questions about life beneath the surface.

He was a mathematically gifted biologist who also was able to express himself with the written and spoken word.

Nick gave the keynote address at the 2007 Ecohydraulics Symposium in Christchurch, New Zealand, and no one dozed off.

“He was simply awe inspiring, leaving a lasting impression on all we spoke to afterward,” a New Zealand scientist recalled.

In the Times obit, a family friend had this to say:

“Nick wasn’t just the baby son of Plath and Hughes and it would be wrong to think of him as some kind of inevitably tragic figure. He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right. That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.”

It does sound, on balance, like the life of someone who struggled against great odds to forge his own destiny, and to at least some extent succeeded.


voice said...

Suicides do seem to run in families but whether this is some kind of genetic predisposition or the result of family culture or some combination of these is an open question. I've run into it myself in several families I am personally familiar with.

RW said...

I'm neutral on the subject, but take a look at the mini-panel assembled by the New York Times.

Interesting thoughts by Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

"Suicide runs in families. It’s not entirely clear to what extent this is a genetic predisposition, and to what extent having a parent who has killed himself or herself simply makes the option feel more readily available, though both are certainly true."

Also, he writes this:

"Those who commit suicide implant the idea that this is a viable option, but it seems likely that Nicholas Hughes was beset by demons he can rightly call his own. And every life that is lost to suicide is tragic, be it associated with poetry or not."

voice said...

In one family I know that consisted of a husband and wife and two sons, the husband killed himself, ostensibly in despair over cheating on his wife. Then a few years later, the elder son killed himself for reasons unknown, but he was visibly depressed for some time. And of course there were two or three suicides (one was unclear) in Ludwig Wittgenstein's family, and he wrote that he had contemplated it several times himself. A book just came out about that by I think, Alexander Waugh.

Stodolka said...

And my father soldiered on finding ways to tell jokes, and express how young he still felt inside, even when he was deep into dementia. He just loved being alive, despite really a large amount of personal loss.

I suspect some defect of thinking, perhaps something bipolar, that lets you lose track of realities, like the good things in your life. You start believing those insane things -- I wish I'd never been born and the like -- that cross all our minds at times.

Assia Wevill was a beauty -- have you seen pictures? Remarkably soulful.

Hi Rodney.