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Michael Crichton '64, Novelist and Screenwriter

By Conor J. Reilley, Crimson Staff Writer

While an undergrad at Harvard, J. Michael Crichton ’64 had a passion for writing, though he did not turn his full attention to these pursuits until later in his career. A physical anthropology concentrator, Crichton went on to attend Harvard Medical School, publishing his first novel in 1966 under a pseudonym.

Crichton, the well-renowned science fiction author who wrote novels such as “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain,” was described by former Crimson editorial chair Robert W. Gordon ’63 as having a “multiform intelligence” in College, though in person “he was relatively understated.”

His extracurricular pursuits at the College often dovetailed with his interests in film, literature, and science, which later defined his career.

Eighteen years after the publication of his best known novel, “Jurassic Park,” Crichton unexpectedly passed away on Nov. 4, 2008, due to throat cancer at the age of 66.

The online memorial, featured on the author’s official website, quoted Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie adaptation of Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”. “Michael's talent out-scaled even his own dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the Earth.” Spielberg wrote. “Michael was a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels.”

A Budding Writer

At the College, Crichton was remarkable for many reasons—from his writing, to his scholarship, to his height.

Standing at 6’ 9”, Crichton was the tallest of his freshman year roommates in Weld, who were all above 6’ 4” tall. “We were put together freshman year because Harvard was so unimaginative that they couldn’t think of any other way than to put the tall guys together” Crichton’s roommate Joseph W. Esherick ’64 said.

As a friend, Crichton was well-liked. “Mike was very sharp; not outspoken, not obnoxious, as, I hesitate to say, many Harvard people are.  He was my opportunity to learn certain East Coast manners,” Esherick said.

Crichton also wrote both in public and in private. He was an editor on The Harvard Crimson writing pieces ranging from book reviews to news clippings to sports game recaps.

Esherick recalled that after taking a creative writing course, Crichton became more serious about his fiction writing.

According to Gordon, Crichton wrote a number of “pulp fiction detective novels” while he was a student, though none of his books were published until after graduation.

He also succeeded academically, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He was awarded the Henry Russell Shaw Travelling Fellowship, which allowed him to serve as a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University.

Gordon said that Crichton was a person of incredible talent, able to succeed at nearly anything he set his mind to. “It was only later on that many of us learned about many of the amazing different things he was doing at the time.  He was a colossally talented guy,” Gordon said.

Crichton intended to practice medicine, Esherick said, writing his novels first as a form of personal entertainment, and eventually as means to support himself through medical school. His first five books were published under the pen names John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson.

He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1969, the same year that his book “A Case of Need” won an Edgar Award, a prestigious prize in the mystery genre. Upon receiving the award, Crichton decided to dedicate his career to his part-time job as an author and publish under his own name.

Professional And Best-Selling

Over the course of just over 40 years, Crichton published more than 25 novels and was credited on 13 films. Collectively, 200 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide.

The film adaptation of “Jurassic Park” (1993) was a huge success, globally grossing over $914 million. Connecting his experience in medicine to his career in writing, Crichton created the Emmy-winning medical drama ER, which was on the air from 1994-2009.

On a memorial page to Crichton, ER executive producer John Wells was quoted, “Michael Crichton was an extraordinary man. Brilliant, funny, erudite, gracious, exceptionally inquisitive and always thoughtful. No lunch with Michael lasted less than three hours and no subject was too prosaic or obscure to attract his interest.”

—Staff writer Conor J. Reilley can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @c_reilley.

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