Donald C. Drake, 82, of Philadelphia, a prizewinning medical and science writer for the Inquirer who went on to a second career as a playwright, died Saturday night of heart and kidney failure at his home.
From his days as a precocious grade-schooler, all Mr. Drake wanted to do was write, and he did, becoming one of the early and best practitioners of narrative journalism in America, said Gene Foreman, the paper’s former deputy editor.
“Don was a pioneer,” Foreman said. “He championed narrative writing and taught narrative writing informally to his colleagues at the Inquirer.
“He was always an advocate of writing in depth and engaging the reader, and putting the reader right there with everything that was happening in the story. He was very influential to the craft of journalism.”
William K. Marimow, now editor-at-large and vice president of Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com, said Mr. Drake “was a gifted reporter, writer, and a generous mentor to a generation of Inquirer staffers.”
He said Mr. Drake, as a reporter, “was ahead of his time in formulating memorable narratives about medicine — the doctors, their patients and the hospitals where they practiced and taught.”
Mr. Drake was often ahead of the pack in identifying major trends on his beat. This was especially true in the 1980s as AIDS patients began dying in large numbers. It was a development that was largely ignored by the press, politicians, and the medical community, but Mr. Drake recognized its importance, and his stories about the epidemic dominated the front page of the Inquirer long before others in the mainstream news media took notice.
“His work on the AIDS epidemic was groundbreaking and prescient,” Marimow said.
During a newsroom career that stretched from 1966 to 2001, Mr. Drake stood out as a special projects writer and projects team editor at a time when lengthy, serial articles were in vogue. (With the rise of online journalism, the trend has tipped toward shorter stories.)
Mr. Drake incorporated drama and emotion in his stories, as if constructing a play. Readers bought the next day’s installment out of a need to know how the narrative turned out.
Although his articles dealt with serious and complex medical issues, he likened the storytelling to a soap opera. “You get the readers involved with a character, so they wonder what is going to happen. It’s looking at news in a totally different way,” he told the New York Times in a Feb. 8, 1999, article.
When Mr. Drake took a buyout from the Inquirer in 2001 to devote himself full time to playwriting – he had begun writing plays in the 1980s – he observed that while he found drama in the news, the news was stoking his dramas. “I ended up combining these two careers, with each one benefiting from the other,” he wrote on his website, donaldcdrake.com.
The narrative form he pioneered was so successful that Mr. Drake won scores of prizes for medical and science writing. In 1983, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a portrait of how mental-health care had failed patients in America. In 1993, he and colleague Marian Uhlman were Pulitzer finalists for an investigation of how big companies were driving up the cost of prescription drugs.
But the prize eluded him. “He was the best reporter and writer who never won the Pulitzer Prize,” said Charles Layton, Mr. Drake’s projects editor starting in 1980.
In 1974, Mr. Drake suggested a novel project to his Inquirer editors: What if he attended medical school for four years to see how a class of raw students became qualified physicians?
“Four-year-long series! Sounds like a hell of an idea,” said one editor, David R. Boldt, as told in Medical School, the 1978 book that Mr. Drake wrote, based on his newspaper series.
Published by Rawson, Wade Publishers Inc., the book, which followed a group of students in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Class of 1978, began innocuously.
“The one hundred letters were stacked in a small pile in the outgoing box of the admissions office,” it read. “They didn’t look very important.”
Mr. Drake took readers with the students as they cut into their first cadaver in the anatomy lab, treated the first patient, delivered the first baby, worked the first shift in the surgical-intensive care unit, and emerged as full-blown physicians.
“One day about a year ago, I suddenly realized that I was a doctor,” Mr. Drake wrote of one former student’s recollections. “I had been waiting for this moment. It was almost orgasmic. I had a very strong feeling of warmth throughout my body. I felt that my head and my body were really one, and they were doing maximally what I had been trying to get them to do all these years.”
In his final decade at the Inquirer, Mr. Drake was a writing coach and editor for narrative series. One such serial, about how families cope with aging and death, won reporter Michael Vitez and photographers April Saul and Ron Cortes the 1997 Pulitzer for explanatory journalism.
“We would go into his office, shut the door, drink club soda, and time would just slow down,” Vitez recalled. “There would be a busy newsroom out there, obsessed with the daily paper and news, but we would talk scenes and structure and ideas.
“He cared so deeply about craft and narrative. All walls and barriers went away, and the imagination was free. It was so helpful and exciting, and I’d come out of his office feeling so enthusiastic and full of ideas.”
One of Mr. Drake’s consistent themes was the burgeoning problem of homelessness in Philadelphia.
“He spent time following a homeless person on the street for one entire day,” Layton said. “He didn’t speak to the man, but he noticed what he did, how he got food — he watched his interactions with people. This was not something most reporters would do, but it was extremely effective.”
Mr. Drake did not hesitate to chronicle his own 1980 heart attack at the age of 45, which landed him in the hospital and his prose on the front page of the July 3 Inquirer. “My spirits were strangely positive,” he wrote after describing the episode. “I had passed the first 24 hours of a heart attack. And I was alive.”
A graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Mr. Drake was the son of Gloria and Al Drake. He started in 1953 as a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune, badgering reporters to let him tag along on stories. His next stop was Long Island’s Newsday, where he scooped the competition by hiding in a dumbwaiter to overhear a union meeting.
“He wanted to be a witness to the action,” Layton said. “He would get closer to the people than almost any reporter would ever do.”
After Eugene L. Roberts Jr. became the Inquirer’s executive editor in 1972, Mr. Drake flourished. “Don kept writing long pieces, and Roberts kept putting them in the paper,” Layton said. The stories “attracted a lot of good talent when we showed them what Don Drake was doing.”
In 2001, sensing that the heyday of narrative writing was over, Mr. Drake left the Inquirer to write plays. He wrote about loss, gender issues, ethical dilemmas, and the diseases he had studied.
“It is a luscious feeling,” he told American Journalism Review, “to get up and write until 1 or 2 p.m. and then have the rest of the day to do things that normal people do.”
The plays, which were staged at community theaters, allowed Mr. Drake to add whimsy to his repertoire. In a 2005 play, Gorked, he toyed with what it means to be delusional by suggesting that a character with Alzheimer’s disease might actually be communing with dead relatives.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some truth in it?” Mr. Drake asked Inquirer theater critic Douglas J. Keating.
When not writing, Mr. Drake liked to give readings of his plays at the Philadelphian, where he lived, and to ballroom dance with his wife, Molly Hindman, said Sally A. Downey, a longtime friend and a former Inquirer reporter.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Drake is survived by his daughters Valerie Drake-Altman and Jennifer Hindman Sargent, and five grandchildren.
Plans for a memorial service were pending.