The science of Dr. Dave Perlman

By Jennifer Blot

When America’s oldest journalist, San Francisco Chronicle scribe David Perlman, was faced with a decidedly 21st-century issue—a hacked Twitter account—he was tickled. He’d been writing stories for more than 70 years before succumbing to a newsroom-mandated Twitter account and admits he was “absolutely delighted” when faced with a glitch in the service designed to promote news stories in a 140-character sound bite. But don’t be mistaken: Perlman, 97, is no dinosaur. The Chronicle’s senior science editor embraces the technology that serves him best. He usually answers his emails a nanosecond after he receives them, crafting a thoughtful reply, followed by “Cheers!” He picks up his work phone—a landline, of course—on the first ring. And his Rolodex is brimming with more than 1,000 contacts—a number destined to grow, since he has no plans to retire.

His newsroom colleagues call him “Dr. Dave,” and he’s both a legend and a given in the Chronicle newsroom. He may be what he calls “terrible” at social media and blogging, but he’s earned just about every national science writing award conceivable. On a local level, he’s known for his thorough coverage of developments in the science and medical communities and for his role as one of the first reporters to cover AIDS—long before the epidemic had a name.

Born December 30, 1918, Perlman brushes off his imminent 98th birthday—“I’m going to ignore it, naturally,” he states—and the attention his longevity has brought in recent years. For the better part of a century, he’s educated the everyman by patiently translating complicated scientific theories and,

along the way, cemented a legacy as the oldest working journalist in the United States—and possibly the world. Yet Perlman seems to take it all in stride, quick to shift the spotlight away from himself: After 75 years in the news business, he’d rather be the one asking the questions, not answering them. 

A relic from the days of gruff, predominantly male newsrooms, there’s no trace of curmudgeon in Perlman—just curiosity with a hint of stubbornness. These days, he pretty much assigns his own stories, then hunkers down at a desk that’s been his home-away-from-home since the paper’s cackling typewriter days. It’s one of the best seats in the third floor newsroom at 901 Mission Street—quiet enough for a good old-fashioned phone interview and framed by a corner window overlooking the parking lot in the nearby alley, where he parks his VW Jetta, a recent acquisition to replace his weathered white ’93 Honda Accord with more than 150,000 miles—the majority racked up on San Francisco streets.

Most evenings when his workday is done, he dons a tweed blazer over a crisp pastel dress shirt, grabs his cane (which is an on-again, off-again nuisance) and heads from the paper to Presidio Heights to see Gladys Thacher, with whom he’s says he’s been “going steady” for the past few years. “Glady,” as he fondly calls her, is a local hero in her own right—she founded the San Francisco Education Fund and served as its first executive director. If it’s not a symphony or opera night, they may end up at one of Perlman’s longtime favorites, Via Veneto on Fillmore or Osteria on Sacramento Street. At Via Veneto, they’re charmed by owner Massimo, who Perlman calls “a real Italian character, a nice guy.” And at Osteria, the pasta is as consistently good as it was when Perlman started going there 25 years ago. If there’s one thing about Dr. Dave, it’s consistency. He’s shopped at Bryan’s and Cal-Mart on California Street for 50 years, and for late evening runs, it’s Mollie Stone’s before heading to his home in the Inner Richmond, where he and his late wife Anne, set down roots in 1951 and raised three children. 

Perlman, who was awarded the Society of Professional Journalists’ Helen Thomas Award for lifetime achievement when he was 91, knew he wanted to become a newspaper reporter at age 12. At the time, however, he envisioned writing about murders, not science (“I hated it”). He’d seen a production of The Front Page and was smitten with the newsroom characters: guys, he says, who wore hats on the back of their heads, drank from hip flasks and gambled in the press room. “I wanted to be like them. I wasn’t going to be a highly idealistic fellow: I just wanted to be a nomadic newspaper man,” he says. 

A New York native, Perlman would go on to attend Columbia Journalism School. One day, Paul C. Smith, whom Perlman called the “wonder boy of American journalism,” came to speak to his class and boasted of his plans to transform the San Francisco Chronicle into the “New York Times of the West.” Smith was only 29, not much older than the students he addressed, and made an impression that was hard for Perlman to shake.

After graduating, Perlman took a reporting job in North Dakota but kept thinking about the Paris of the West. He sent a Western Union telegram to his former classmate Bill German, whom Smith had hired. It was fortuitous—Smith ended up hiring Perlman as a copy boy. A rite of passage in those days, if a copy boy could maneuver the newsroom and heed the barking orders of superiors for three months or so without ticking anyone off, he might actually be hired as a reporter. Smith had an eye for talent, it seemed: In addition to spotting Perlman’s potential, copy boy German would go on to serve as longtime executive editor of the Chronicle and another hire, a Sacramento kid named Herb Caen, would become one of the country’s most famous columnists and earn a Pulitzer Prize. 

Perlman’s starting guild wage was $18 a week and the streetcar fare was a nickel. (Back then there were two competing railways and service stretched out near the beach, where Perlman was living.) Within a year of joining the Chronicle, he met his future wife, Anne, at a party and the two ended up securing a studio apartment on Darrell Place, near the Filbert steps. The $50 a month rent came with a spectacular view of Pier 25 and Treasure Island. 

The idyllic view wouldn’t be theirs for long, since he was called (along with Caen and German) to serve in World War II. After the war, he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune in Paris before returning to San Francisco and rejoining the Chronicle.

He spent a handful of years as a general assignment reporter, then began writing about science, creating a niche the paper had been lacking. There was no shortage of stories and the beat offered him the chance to become an expert at boiling down complex subjects for readers. 

More than six decades later, Perlman’s outlook on science writing is much the same: “Like all daily newspaper reporters, you cover what’s new today.” The topics that continue to present new angles are ones he’s long been familiar with: climate change, ongoing space research, issues of evolution.    

“I try to write in a way that people will be interested in what I’m writing and the subject I’m covering,” he admits. 

In the past, when the Chronicle had a robust travel budget, Perlman was sent around the world, including Antarctica, Alaska, Africa, Europe and Asia. He wrote extensively about nuclear weapons and the Cold War, his coverage somehow managing to win approval from both the pro- and anti-weapons groups.

To date, one of the most memorable trips of his career was the two months he spent in the winter of 1964 as the sole reporter aboard an oceanographic research ship on the Galapagos rift zone, accompanying a team of scientists as they discovered geothermal vents, hot spots in the ocean floor and undersea volcanos. “I wrote 30 stories about that expedition and they were some of the most fun and best stories I’ve done,” he says, noting the novelty of being there before the area became accessible to tourists.

Former Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein recalls another Perlman career highlight: when he was at mission control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and was “staying up 24/7 to cover it with the enthusiasm of a freshman reporter.” 

Bronstein says that “Dave, in the decades I’ve read him and in the years I was honored to work in the same newsroom with him, epitomizes what I think are the best traits of brilliant science writing: With his youthful passion for the craft and awe of his topic, he brings us, as his readers, along on his happy journey of discovery. For Dave, that journey is never about already knowing the answers; it’s always about finding things out.” 

Only once did Perlman divert from science writing when, in the 1970s, he was tapped to serve as city editor. The experience was grueling—and historic: He oversaw the coverage of the Moscone and Milk murders and the Jonestown Massacre. “Those two years I was city editor, they were very challenging,” he recalls. “We did a good job. I don’t take credit for that: It was the reporters who did the good job.”

Just about the only thing Perlman will pat himself on the back for is his meticulous note-taking. “I never have been accused of misquoting anybody, although I’ve never used a tape recorder,” he says.

Perlman can remember dates, years and specific stories with stunning clarity but doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on his past. If anything, he deflects the awe of newsroom visitors when they discover his age by offering a cheerful greeting or witty quip, then cruising through the newsroom at a clip that lets them know there’s work to be done and deadlines to meet. 

These days, his paper’s hyperlocal focus has changed Perlman’s beat and he concentrates on more local stories and reviews science books for the Book Review section. And much of what the paper is covering—the tech world, the changing Mission and gentrification of San Francisco—have little impact on Perlman’s day-to-day life. 

He admits he can’t keep up with the construction at Mission Bay and is frustrated by the increase in traffic on his daily commute down Geary, but his life, for the most part, remains untouched by much of the buzz consuming Millennials these days.

“I don’t go to Valencia Street and am not into the food revolution,” he admits. “I’ve been told that the city has gone crazy, but it has no effect on my life—I still go to the same supermarket I’ve been going to for 50 years.”

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