“Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors.”
Today we commemorate the life of Norman Cousins, who would have celebrated his ninety-seventh birthday this month. As editor of The Saturday Review, author of twenty-five books, professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA, and active participant in medical relief efforts across the world, Cousins enjoyed a vast array of accomplishments during his lifetime. Indeed, though never formally trained in medicine, Cousins’ most notable book was based on the “self-healing” experience that he described in his book titled Anatomy of an Illness (1979).
Norman Cousins was born in Union Hill, New Jersey, on June 24, 1915. Growing up, he enjoyed writing and playing sports. He graduated from Columbia University Teachers College in 1933, at which point he began his career as a writer and editor, working for the New York Evening Post and Current History. In 1940 he took the job of executive editor of the Saturday Review of Literature (later The Saturday Review), becoming editor-in-chief just two years later at the age of twenty-seven, and holding the position for thirty years. During his time at The Saturday Review, the magazine grew from a small niche publication to a weekly magazine circulating over 600,000 copies.
Cousins’ relationship with Linus Pauling was long and multifaceted. The two began their correspondence in 1956, when Cousins wrote to Pauling regarding a monthly science and research supplement to The Saturday Review. He asked for Pauling’s advice on how a section of this sort might be used to “build a link between the scientist and the citizen, between the world of research and the world of ideas and opinion.” Pauling, a regular reader of The Saturday Review, was enthusiastic about the idea and often wrote to Cousins, explaining aspects of the magazine that he really enjoyed and other parts that he felt could be improved.
Cousins was also chairman of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), which warned that the world was bound for a nuclear holocaust if the threat of the nuclear arms race was not stopped. He believed that through educating citizens about the nature of atomic weapons and their consequences, misguided American nuclear policies could be improved. Pauling was likewise a member of this group and as a result of their shared interest, Cousins invited Pauling to the SANE conference of national leaders planned for September 1958 to discuss American nuclear policy and the future of the committee. As was typical for him at the time, Pauling was already booked up with a full travel schedule, but promised Cousins that he would regard himself to be an ambassador-at-large for SANE.
As 1961 came to a close, the letters between Pauling and Cousins began to lose their once friendly nature and became increasingly argumentative. The force that divided them was a wave of anti-communist anxiety that funneled through SANE in the early 1960s. Specifically, William F. Buckley’s National Review magazine had intimated that Pauling was “being used” by communists, which led certain members within SANE to question the group’s association with Pauling. As chairman of SANE, Cousins became the focal point for Pauling’s outrage over what he termed “McCarthyism” within the group.
The majority of the issue between the two men, however, appears to have been largely a misunderstanding of the positions being taken be each with respect to the matter. Most of the argument was comprised of the two bickering about a lack of acknowledgement of what one had said to the other in various exchanges. “It would seem strange indeed if two men with essentially the same basic commitments should be unable to get along, or even to communicate with one another with a fair degree of understanding,” Cousins wrote in one letter. Cousins later put the issue to rest by writing, “Our correspondence on these questions, I am sure, has been as unsatisfactory and displeasing to you as it has to me. There is no point in prolonging it, therefore I shall terminate my part of it with this letter.”
Three years later, in 1964, Cousins was diagnosed with a potentially crippling collagen disease identified at one point as ankylosing spondylitis. Specialists had never witnessed a recovery from this condition, but Cousins was determined to be the first to do so, and through a holistic medical approach to boot. His regimen included a component familiar to the Pauling world – large doses of ascorbic acid – as well as something rather unique: laughter therapy.
After experiencing little success with the drugs he was given to combat his condition, Cousins leaned upon various accounts that he had read about the power of positive emotion and the value of vitamin C. His new course of therapy focused on intravenous injections of ascorbic acid, screening funny movies and reading books of humor. Over time, the symptoms of his affliction lessened to the point where he felt himself to be recovered from the illness.
In 1981 Cousins published an account of his recovery in Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, which documented his complete recovery from the extremely painful disease and is now referred to as a landmark in establishing the credibility of holistic medicine, particularly through its demonstration of the power of the mind in promoting physical healing.
As a result of his medical and peace related work, Cousins was chosen to be the keynote speaker at an April 1986 dinner sponsored by Oregon State University and marking the occasion of Pauling’s donation of his papers to the Oregon State University Libraries. In his presentation, Cousins talked about Pauling’s main concern in the world, peace, focusing on both the obstacles and opportunities that confronted peace workers around the world.
Just over four years later, on November 30, 1990, Cousins died of a heart attack at the age of 75. Though a man of many interests and ambitions, Cousins is still remembered most for his long relationship with The Saturday Review. “To work with books and ideas,” he once wrote, “to see the interplay between a nation’s culture and its needs, to have unfettered access to an editorial page which offered, quite literally, as much freedom as I was capable of absorbing – this is a generous portion for anyone.”