An interview with Joye Patterson

By Shraddha Sankhe

Related Blog Post: Remembering Joye Patterson.

Note: This interview took place on Feb. 23 between Joye Patterson and Smith/Patterson Fellow Shraddha Sankhe. 

As the Smith/Patterson Fellow for 2011-12, I had an opportunity to interview former MU Professor Joye Patterson. Joye taught science writing at the School of Journalism from 1966 to 1989. She was also one of the first women to receive a doctorate in Missouri. I wanted to meet her to learn what motivated her to get involved in science journalism back in the 1960s.

In 2008, one of Joye’s former students, Russell G Smith II, gifted $100,000 to the School of Journalism for the Smith/Patterson Fellowship & Lecture Series. He named it in honor of her to promote science, health and technology journalism.

These days Joye is a busy woman, but on a recent Thursday afternoon I sat down with her in the School of Journalism’s J-Café to talk.

Q: When and how did you get involved in science journalism? What were your motivations?

A: If I backed up quite a bit I would tell you that my grandfather was a country doctor and I used to sit in his office and look at his big old textbooks. And I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a doctor, too. Then, when I got into school, I hit chemistry and I decided that that’s not probably what I should be. I liked to write all along. I wanted to stay close to medicine. It was a combination of interests of science and writing.

Q: What was the field of science journalism like when you got started?

A: I didn’t study it per se. I got a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. I got that degree so far back you wouldn’t believe it. I got my degree in 1947. There wasn’t even talk about science journalism. My first job was to teach high school journalism and advise for their paper. I knew I didn’t want to do that. That’s not what I had in mind.

The second job I had was as the Public Information Director for a large hospital in Memphis, Tenn. They were setting up a public information program and they had never had one before. We were developing publications and, as you can imagine, some were for the staff and some for the public. From there, ideas about relating to patients and public relations were developed. I worked at the Dean’s office at the Medical School, at the University of Tennessee. I was close to what was going on in research there as well as active clinical practice. I enjoyed that very much.

After a few years there I decided I wanted to go back to school. The thing that really prompted it was the “Great Books” series [The Great Books of the Western World series was produced by Encyclopedia Britannica and included several volumes on science]. People all across the country were encouraged to form groups, read, and discuss these books about science. I found I really loved being back in the reading and talking about science and so I decided to go to graduate school. It was obviously Missouri, which was the best, and that’s why I wanted to come here.

I came up here to graduate school in the fall of 1960. Most graduate students are looking for income. I came to talk with the deans at the J-School and the medical school. University of Missouri’s medical school was quite young then. It was founded in 1956. They, too, were thinking about starting an information program. The dean (at the Medical School) said he had an opening and we began developing publications with local media. He had me sitting in on the senior faculty meetings and so I learned a lot about what was going on. In the University setting, of course, we were close to both medical research and clinical practices as I needed to see what we could promote.

Q: You received a fellowship as a Master’s student, didn’t you?

A: Yes, I did. I received the fellowship through the medical school. I worked on research projects with Dr. William Stevenson from the J-School.

Q: How did science journalism evolve later in your career?

A: I completed my doctorate in 1966. The dean of the medical school said that they would come up with half my salary and the journalism school would come up with other half if I stayed and taught part time in the J-School. At that time, I was one of the first women to complete a doctorate. I believe there were only two women on the faculty at that time and they both were at the Missourian. Dean English, who was dean here in the J-School, asked me to teach a course in science writing. At that time, I don’t believe there was a science writing program in the country. We thought we could come up with some money for fellowships for graduate students. If those two schools were paying our salaries, we could begin to pay attention to it. That’s how we got started.

Q: What was the science journalism program like when you were teaching? 

A: I taught a course in science writing, just sort of developed it. We were really working to prepare graduates to work in newspapers. Newspapers were totally a different scene and only so much of science coverage was published. We had a number of students, and I expect there still are, where students get a degree in the sciences and then come over here and get a Master’s in journalism. We found that those were very good students. The students knew about how science works and use of the language of science and how to ask the relevant questions to scientists.

Q: What do you think about the state of science journalism?

A: I know so little about what’s going on in journalism in the practical world, except for what’s happening in the technical side of it. There aren’t any jobs in newspapers certainly for science writers, and I began to see that before I retired with so many of our graduates going with science-related publications. I think the public has a lot of interest in medical news as it applies to all of them. I remember when the space program was just beginning and we had a huge blip in the interest in science. Then there was another blip with environmental concerns, which encouraged science journalism.

Q: Did you have a mentor?  How has their guidance helped you?

A: I was very fortunate. I had two mentors. One was the dean of the medical school who, unlike a lot of other people in the science and medical fields, had a much broader focus. The way they sold the development of the medical school in Missouri was that it would provide [information to] doctors where we’d rush ‘research findings to the bedside’, as we called it. The dean was really concerned in the public understanding science. He said it shouldn’t be locked up in the University center somewhere. It should be out there to the people.

Around the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson came in as President and a lot of money was spent on regional medical programs to get information out to the public. The idea was to bring together people from different fields, like engineering and journalism, and have them work together. They were able to build community hospitals and specialized heart surgery units. Lewis Hall on the campus was our regional office for the medical program. However, when Nixon came in as the President a lot of the program stopped and the well-developed staff’s work halted.

Q: If somebody wants to be a science journalist today, would they need a different set of skills or are the fundamentals of science journalism still pretty much the same?   

A: I don’t know enough about what’s happening now. Obviously, the computers have changed the world. The biggest change has been the availability of information and to bring it up no matter from where. Back then, you had to go all out to get the information; you couldn’t just sit and get it on your computer. To me, that’s been the most pronounced change, not just for science writing. The computer is the core of the jobs out there now.

Q: Are there any students or experiences that stand out from your time teaching science journalism at the J-school?

A: I worked a lot with graduate students. I loved working with the students. Students keep you young and they have good questions. I remember a lot of them. One of my students is now in San Francisco who still keeps in touch.

Q: How did you feel when Russell G. Smith II started the Fellowship in your name to promote science journalism?

A: I was quite overwhelmed. I remembered Russell very well. Sue Mills, (wife of the Dean of the School of Journalism) who works at the University, called me one day and said, “Do you remember a student named Russell Smith?” and I said, “Of course”. She told me that he was interested in giving the University some money for a program and he wanted to talk to me about that. So we met over a coffee. I thought the fellowship was a fantastic idea, but I thought it would named after him and not me. But eventually he came up with this combination of Smith/Patterson.

Q: I have heard that you are extremely busy and active. What types of things are you into these days?

A: It’s a busy life. There are many things I like to do. I volunteer quite a bit. I volunteer one afternoon per week at the Episcopal Church at the 9th St. I am very active in a reading group and we meet each week. My husband and I wanted to stay in Columbia after our retirement. We like this town. We have a lot of friends here. I take Tai Chi classes twice a week. I have been doing it for 10 or 12 years. It keeps my old bones going. I walk a lot. My days are so busy. Somebody says you have retired. I say the difference is you do what you want to and you don’t have a schedule that’s built in. I like it that way.


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