Sir John Maddox, Nature editor, memory of waterJohn Maddox, who in two stints as Nature's editor helped transform the influential journal, died yesterday in Abergavenny, Wales, at the age of 83. The cause of death was cumulative heart and lung problems following a broken hip, according to his daughter, Bronwen Maddox, a columnist for the Times of London.

In a long and varied career, Maddox worked as a science journalist at the Manchester Guardian (now simply the Guardian) and as a lecturer in physics at the University of Manchester. But his editorship of Nature (1966–1973, 1980–1995) "was what feels like his life," Maddox says.

"He adored science and talked about it all the time," she says. "He was enormously enthused by it. He was a physicist, and took to the biological sciences with enthusiasm, but I think his heart stayed in physics."

His first tenure at Nature (which shares a parent company, Macmillan, with Scientific American) marked the beginning of the journal's proliferation into specialty titles, as Nature New Biology and Nature Physical Science were launched to supplement the flagship publication. Today numerous specialized journals, including Nature Medicine and Nature Nanotechnology, are produced by the Nature Publishing Group.

Maddox's second run at the journal brought him into a renowned conflict. In 1988 Nature published a paper by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste asserting that water could maintain biological activity even after all biological molecules had effectively been diluted out—demonstrating the so-called memory of water. (Such principles have been used to validate the purported benefit of homeopathic medicine—the unexpected effectiveness of dilute agents.)

The journal ran an accompanying editorial warning readers not to take Benveniste's claims at face value; Maddox then took magician and skeptic James Randi and scientific fraud investigator Walter Stewart to Benveniste's laboratory, where they observed the experiments. The three men wrote a follow-up commentary that shot down the research, calling it "statistically ill-controlled, from which no substantial effort has been made to exclude systematic error, including observer bias, and whose interpretation has been clouded."

Maddox's daughter says the Benveniste affair was a defining moment in his career. "He went out on a limb for this and was right," she says. "He liked controversy. He wasn't afraid to stick his head out."

Maddox was knighted in 1995 and was named an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society in 2000. He is survived by his wife, the biographer and journalist Brenda Maddox, four children and two grandchildren.

Photo courtesy of Gustavus Adolphus College