Jim Murphy, Who Wrote Vivid Histories for the Young, Dies at 74

Jim Murphy, who in dozens of evocative, diligently researched books told young readers about historical episodes as varied as the Chicago fire of 1871 and a medical breakthrough in 1944 that prevented infant deaths, died on May 1 at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He was 74.

His wife, Alison Blank, confirmed his death but said a cause had not been determined.

Mr. Murphy started his publishing career as a children’s book editor but grew restless after a few years.

“Toward the end of 1977,” he told Publishers Weekly in 2016, “it occurred to me that all these authors I was working with were having books published with their names on them, and getting royalties, and I thought, ‘I’m going to wake up one day and I’ll be 65 and it will be too late.’”

Mr. Murphy’s medical history for young readers was a National Book Award finalist.

As he told The Record of Hackensack in 1978, he had been flipping through a mail-order catalog and came across a square egg-maker (it transformed hard-boiled eggs into square hard-boiled eggs), which gave him the idea for his first book, “Weird and Wacky Inventions.” Published by Crown in 1978, it told the stories of a toothbrush for dogs and cats, a diaper for birds, a hat that tipped itself by means of a spring-driven device attached to it, and scores of other odd but real inventions.

Mr. Murphy took on a wide range of subjects as his writing career advanced, most of them more weighty than peculiar inventions. One was the Chicago fire, recounted in “The Great Fire” (1995), which was named a Newbery Honor book, a runner-up for the prestigious Newbery Medal.

As in his other books, Mr. Murphy did not talk down to his young readers or sugarcoat. He explained why Chicago was, as he put it, “a city ready to burn.” An overwhelming majority of its buildings were mostly wood, even those that claimed to be fireproof, with exteriors painted to look like stone or marble.

“The American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793” (2003) was just as blunt as its title, drawing on firsthand accounts to give readers not only vivid descriptions of the disease that raced through Philadelphia early in the country’s history, but also accounts of disagreements among doctors about what to do, the epidemic’s political consequences and its long-range effects. It too was a Newbery Honor book, as well as a National Book Award finalist.

Mr. Murphy drew on his own schoolboy experiences in New Jersey in writing this novel.Credit….

And there was “Breakthrough! How Three People Saved ‘Blue Babies’ and Changed Medicine Forever” (2015), about a groundbreaking heart operation performed in 1944 and credited to two white doctors, Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, though important parts of the procedure were the work of a Black research assistant, Vivien Thomas, who many at the hospital, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, thought was a janitor.

Mr. Murphy did not mince words regarding Dr. Blalock’s failure to include his Black assistant when taking credit for the operation.

“Blalock could have pushed his talented research assistant’s career forward with little trouble, and he could have fended off any criticism hurled at him,” he wrote. “But he didn’t. Instead, Blalock was, like too many people in positions of power, happy to allow an unfair situation to drift along.”

In these and other books, Mr. Murphy relied heavily on first-person accounts, many of them by ordinary people rather than generals or presidents. It was an approach he latched onto early in his writing career. He was contemplating a book on the history of tractors, until his father mocked the idea as too boring.

“And I realized that an interesting thing about tractors, especially steam tractors, is that they exploded a lot,” he told Publishers Weekly. “So I wrote a history of tractors, knitting together firsthand accounts of people who had survived tractor explosions.”

The resulting book, “Tractors: From Yesterday’s Steam Wagons to Today’s Turbocharged Giants,” was published in 1984 and did well.

“I realized that the key was the firsthand perspective,” he said.

James John Patrick Murphy was born on Sept. 25, 1947, in Kearny, N.J., to James and Helen (Grasso) Murphy. In addition to history books, he sometimes wrote fiction, and in one of those works, “Revenge of the Green Banana” (2017), he drew on his experiences at St. Stephen’s School in Kearny to tell the story of a sixth grader named Jimmy Murphy who seeks revenge on a teacher for casting him in a school play as a banana. He wrote this in the dedication:

“To all the teachers at St. Stephen’s, each and every one. I want to apologize for what I did and thank you for putting up with my antics for so many years. I entered St. Stephen’s as one sort of kid and left as an entirely different one.”

Mr. Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Rutgers University and wrote to dozens of publishers hoping for a job as a children’s book editor. “But no one would hire me because I couldn’t type,” he told Publishers Weekly. So the early 1970s found him working construction for an uncle.

“One day I was called down from the 20th floor of the Grace Building in Midtown Manhattan to take a phone call,” he said. “It was from Jim Giblin at Seabury Press, who decided to hire me even though I couldn’t type.”

He worked as an editor at Seabury until deciding to strike out on his own as a writer. His other well-regarded history books include “Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America” (2000), about a punishing storm in 1888. Leigh Fenly of The San Diego Union-Tribune called the book “an astonishing read of life before the advent of weather prediction.”

“Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting” (2009) told the heartening story of how soldiers during World War I defied their commanders to celebrate Christmas with their enemies, but Mr. Murphy presented an unvarnished look at the war.

“In a matter of days, six million soldiers would find themselves facing weapons of unimaginable destructive power,” he wrote in his preface “Many of them would be blasted from the face of the earth, while others would be left permanently wounded in horrible ways. None of these men realized that their leaders had lied to get them to fight a war that did not have to happen.”

Mr. Murphy’s first marriage, to Elaine Kelso, ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Blank, whom he married in 1987, he is survived by two sons from his second marriage, Michael Blank Murphy and Ben Blank Murphy; and a brother, Jerry.

In a 2004 interview with the syndicated newspaper feature the Mini Page, Mr. Murphy reflected on his favorite part of a nonfiction project.

“I really love doing research,” he said. “I look at it as a kind of detective work. I would prefer to research forever and ever. The hard part is doing the writing.”

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