He was born in Russia in late 1919 or early 1920 – his parents weren’t quite sure which. He and his family came to the United States when he was three years old, and he grew up to become one of the most prolific authors of all time. He earned a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University, but his mind was much to active to confine itself to one subject, so he wrote groundbreaking science fiction, a guide to the Bible, a guide to the works of Shakespeare, an annotated book on the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, books and essays on mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, bawdy limericks, jokes, and three autobiographies. The movies I, Robot, and Bicentennial Man were based on his works. He was also a very popular biochemistry professor at Boston University for some years. Before he was offered the job he was asked if he could teach biochemistry, and he replied that he could. In fact, he had never had a course in biochemistry in his life, but he knew that he could learn what he needed to know before his first class began. Call it arrogance or self-assurance, but he knew instinctively that there were no limits to what he could master. He is the definition of a polymath. His name was Isaac Asimov, and he had a gift for writing in such a way that what he wrote – regardless of the complexity of the subject – was accessible to almost any reader.
His father owned a candy store in Brooklyn. The store also sold comic books, so Isaac learned to read at an early age in order to understand what was in them. Since his parents were Russian, they did not speak or read English very well, and there were no books in their home. His father, however, realized that Isaac had a hungry mind, so he got Isaac a library card. Because his father knew little about libraries, he gave Isaac no guidance on what to read, so Isaac sampled everything, and his near-photographic memory allowed him to remember almost everything he read. “Fortunately,” he wrote, “I didn’t have to approach anything (or almost anything) completely fresh. My avid and generalized reading as a youngster came to my aid, for as the years passed, I discovered (with a great deal of pleasure) that I simply never forgot the trivia I had read. It was all there in my head and required only the slightest jog to spring to the surface.”
He started out writing science fiction, but realized later that he had a knack for, and a desire to write nonfiction as well. He was lucky enough to have editors who encouraged his diversity in interests, and he eventually became a full-time writer who bounced from one genre to another almost without effort. And, unlike some writers, he never suffered from writer’s block. To say that he lived to write is totally accurate. He was not happy when he was far away from his beloved typewriter.
He was married twice. His first marriage probably failed, in part at least, due to his insatiable desire to write. “I imagine it does weary a family to have a husband and father who never wants to travel, who never wants to go on an outing or to parties or to the theater, who never wants to do anything but sit in his room and write. I daresay that the failure of my first marriage was partly the result of this.” Fortunately, he found a soul mate in Janet Jeppson, and their marriage lasted from 1973 until his death in 1992.
His sedentary lifestyle, and his eating habits led to a heart attack in 1977, and to triple bypass surgery in 1983. In his third autobiography Asimov talked about how his health declined after the bypass surgery, but he lead everyone to believe that it was due to heart and kidney problems alone. In fact, as Janet disclosed for the first time at the end of the posthumous It’s Been a Good Life (2002), Asimov had received a blood transfusion during his bypass surgery that was tainted with the HIV virus. At that time AIDS was greatly feared because no one knew exactly how contagious it was or how it was transmitted. “In those days,” Janet wrote, “there seemed to be much fear of and prejudice against AIDS patients. I heard even well-educated people say they would be afraid to touch an AIDS patient (although you can’t get AIDS that way). Some people said that they would not even want to be in the same room with an AIDS patient, or touch anything he touched (including phones).” Isaac Asimov died on April 6, 1992 at the age of 72.
Asimov wrote or edited about 300 books, and penned thousands of essays. He gave hundred of talks, won numerous awards, and received more than a dozen honorary degrees. He loved life, he loved writing, he loved the applause of an appreciative audience, and he loved people. Invariably, he displayed a sunny, upbeat outlook on life. “. . . I have had a good life and I have accomplished all I wanted to, and more than I had a right to expect I would.” We should all embrace that attitude.