As It Happens

Science reporter David Perlman, 98, retires after nearly 8 decades at the San Francisco Chronicle

Science reporter David Perlman — who covered the AIDS epidemic before anyone even knew what it was — is retiring from the San Francisco Chronicle after almost eight decades.
David Perlman, centre, helps lead the newsroom at the San Francisco Chronicle in a toast as the paper celebrated 150 years of operation on Jan. 16, 2015. Perlman is now retiring from the paper after 77 years. (Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle)

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Science reporter David Perlman is retiring from the San Francisco Chronicle after almost eight decades. 

"It's high time. My God, I'm 98 years old. If I'm not gonna quit now, when am I gonna quit?" Perlman told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Throughout his 77-year career at the Chronicle, Perlman penned thousands of stories on topics like medicine, resource extraction, astronomy and natural diseases. In 2010 he won the Helen Thomas Award for lifetime achievement in journalism.

He has also served as president of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

From the time I was 12 years old I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I wandered around junior high school and high school with a fake press card in the brim of my snap-brimmed fedora hat.- David Perlman 

But when he started at the paper in 1940, he was a general assignment reporter who didn't know anything about science. 

"It was all a mystery to me," he said.  "I started getting into a few kinds of stories that involved some sort of technology ... and one thing led to another, and suddenly I was covering stars and earthquakes and God knows what else."

But even today, he rejects the title of "expert."

"I don't think any reporter is an expert on anything. It's a matter of finding the experts who can explain scientific material in a way that people out there — readers of the Chronicle, for example — can understand," he said.

"Every story you cover teaches you something, and I've had a lifetime of learning, which is something to be grateful for."

Covering the AIDS epidemic 

One thing he's learned a lot about is the plight of the patients and doctors on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic. 

According to SFGate, the sister site to the Chronicle, Perlman was the first reporter to cover the disease in 1981.

"There was a brief report from the federal health agency that five young men in Los Angeles had contracted a disease called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, and I thought that was very strange and I called up my own health department people in San Francisco," he said.

"And sure enough, a doctor named Selma Dritz, a very passionate health officer, said she was tracking a few people, young men, in San Francisco with the same diagnosis.

"And I did a little story — a brief story. I probably ran about 12 or 14 inches. Didn't even think it was important enough to stick my name on it. And that was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic."

Perlman continued to cover the disease throughout his career, building relationships with the patients and doctors who fought it amid overwhelming stigma. 

"Some of the men are heroes. Some of the docs are heroes too," he said. 

"Nowadays, young people, particularly young men, of all races have the advantage of being able to use the antiretroviral drugs that are keeping them alive and keeping them relatively healthy, which is a remarkable achievement, I think."

While the impact of that coverage cannot be understated, when asked about his favourite assignments, Perlman took a different direction. 

"In 1964, I talked my way into joining an expedition sponsored by the University of California to the Galapagos Islands.  And I spent, I think it was six weeks or two months down there in a total wilderness because there weren't any tourists there at all," he said.

"The best story I wrote was about two scientists who were taking the rectal temperature of a marine iguana."

Journalism, said Perlman, has changed a lot since he landed his first summer job at the age of 18 at a newspaper in Schenectady, N.Y.

"The first hot story I covered was the release of a prostitute from the local county jail, and if you want to know the story — it's terrible today, I couldn't possibly write that today — 'Pretty Kitty Kelly sobbed in her cell at  Schenectady County Jail yesterday,'" he said.

"That's almost word for word, the story. That's a terrible story. Why do I remember it? Just because to me, newspapering was so romantic in those days."

Now, at 98, Perlman is facing a conundrum: What will he do now that he's no longer a reporter?

"From the time I was 12 years old I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I wandered around junior high school and high school with a fake press card in the brim of my snap-brimmed fedora hat," he said. 

"The Chronicle is letting me keep my office and keep my computer connections and all the stuff that I have at the Chronicle. And maybe I'll write my memoirs. Who the heck knows? I may not have the stick-to-it-ness to do that."


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