An Organic Life

On this early Friday morning, a lively discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" is taking place in a basement classroom in Callaway Center.

In this short story written in 1842, Poe describes a country in which a virulent plague is devastating the population. Prince Prospero isolates himself and a thousand friends within a walled, castle-like abbey. Several months into their seclusion, he decides to hold a masked ball in the seven rooms of his imperial suite.

The color scheme progresses from blue to purple and so on until reaching the final room, which is draped in black velvet tapestries with window panes of deep scarlet.

"Why are the red and black paired together?" asks Professor of English Laura Otis, scanning the room.

A student in the back responds casually, "Oh, you know, blood, evil, passion, death . . . "

Otis laughs heartily. "Yes, that about covers it," she says.

The reading list for this undergraduate course, "Literature and Science before 1900," also includes Darwin's The Origin of the Species , Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau , and Shelley's Frankenstein, and has proven popular with pre-med students.

"Most of them are interested in pursuing medicine, but they range from biology majors to English majors," says Otis. "The interesting thing is, I can't tell which is which."

This blending of literature and science is of special interest to Otis, who also co-teaches "The Roots of Modern Neuroscience" with Professor Paul Lennard, director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program.

"I was raised with the idea that science is work and literature is play," says Otis, grabbing a quick energy bar in her Callaway office. "My father was an engineer, and my mother went to a private school where women were taught things such as proper posture instead of the sciences."

With her parents' encouragement, she majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate at Yale and went on to pursue a master's in neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco. She immersed herself in the sciences but missed literature desperately .

"I started getting depressed, to the point of it interfering with my day-to-day functioning," she says. "Then I took a few lit classes at Berkeley. I had the sudden realization that you could do something because you wanted to. People said my face would light up when I was talking about nineteenth-century novels."

Fluent in German, Spanish, and French, Otis went on to earn a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University. Her thesis, "Organic Memory," explored the popular--but inaccurate--Victorian theory that "memory and heredity were essentially the same and that one inherited memories from ancestors."

She became an assistant professor of English at Hofstra University and in 2000 received a MacArthur Fellowship--a no-strings-attached stipend of $500,000 paid over five years to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and creativity.

The fellowship gave her the financial freedom to complete several other works, including Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (University of Michigan Press, 2001), translating Santiago Ramón y Cajal's Vacation Stories: Five Science Fiction Tales (University of Illinois Press, 2001), and editing   Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science (Oxford University Press, 2002).

"To receive a MacArthur is like being in the middle of a positive conspiracy theory," Otis says. "A cascade of people are, anonymously, doing nice things on your behalf. I used to walk around thanking everyone I knew in case they were involved."—M.J.L.



© 2005 Emory University