Jake Page, a versatile journalist and author who published dozens of books, largely about science, natural history and American Indian culture, and who was the founding editor of Smithsonian Books and a longtime contributor to Smithsonian magazine, died Feb. 10 at his home in Lyons, Colo. He was 80.
The cause was vascular disease, said a stepdaughter, Lindsey Truitt.
Mr. Page began his career as an editor at a New York publishing house, knowing next to nothing about science. When his company, Doubleday, formed a partnership with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, he was put in charge of a collaborative effort to publish general-interest books on animals and science.
“My job was to edit them so that any idiot could read them,” he said in a 2014 interview on the website of Rio Nuevo Publishers in Arizona. “I was any idiot.”
As the editor of Natural History Press and Natural History magazine, Mr. Page embarked on an unexpected career that made him one of the country’s most prolific and accomplished masters of popular science writing. He published almost 50 books, about half of them with co-authors, covering diverse topics such as animals, earthquakes, mythology and women’s roles in prehistoric times. He also wrote a series of mystery novels set in the Southwest, as well as several books about American Indians.
After working in New York publishing circles, including a stint as chief editor of Walker Publishing, Mr. Page came to Washington in 1970 as the science editor of the fledgling Smithsonian magazine. He helped shape the style of the monthly journal, commissioning articles and writing many of them.
For several years, he wrote a monthly column, “Phenomena, Comments and Notes,” in which he let his mind roam across the broad world of science and research undertaken by scientists and scholars at the Smithsonian museums. Many of his articles from Smithsonian and other magazines appeared in two collections, “Pastorale” (1985) and “Songs to Birds” (1993).
In 1976, Mr. Page became the founding editor of Smithsonian Books, which he led for four years. He also was the first editor of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, which premiered in 1985.
Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Page frequently visited the Southwest, often with his wife, photographer Susanne Anderson Page. They spent several years working on a story about the Hopi Indians for National Geographic and published several books together about native cultures of the Southwest.
“Over the years,” Mr. Page wrote in his 2003 book, “In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians,” “I came to feel comfortable among . . . Indian people, more so in fact than among many groups of my own people.”
“In the Hands of the Great Spirit,” a comprehensive look at more than 500 North American native peoples across the centuries, was perhaps Mr. Page’s most monumental achievement. In a review in The Washington Post, columnist Colman McCarthy called the book “judicious, as well as flowing, lucid and satisfying.”
When Mr. Page had difficulty persuading editors to publish stories about stolen Indian artifacts, he struck on the idea of turning his research into fiction. In the 1980s and 1990s, he published a well received series of novels featuring a detective named Mo Bowdre, who solved art thefts and other crimes in the Southwest.
“Page has one of the more interesting detectives to come down the mystery pike in a long time,” reviewer Diana Pinckley wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1994. “Mo Bowdre is a man so big he has his chairs custom-made, he’s a sculptor, and he’s blind.”
In a strange case of life imitating art, years after Mr. Page began writing his mystery series, he encountered a blind forensic anthropologist in New Mexico. He wrote about Marsha Ogilvie for Smithsonian magazine in 2001:
“Scientists say we have become ‘gracile’ rather than ‘less robust.’ Ogilvie sometimes uses the word ‘wimpy.’ There is nothing wimpy about Ogilvie herself, except perhaps her modern bone structure. She had had to make the transition from seeing to not seeing when she was 27, the result of diabetes. Up to then, she had raced cars at rallies, collected fossils with family and friends, and was studying anthropology at Southern Methodist University. She was just one course shy of her undergraduate degree when she became blind.”
James Keena Page Jr. was born Jan. 24, 1936, in Boston and grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y. His father was a lawyer.
Mr. Page, who was known as Jake from an early age, graduated from Princeton University in 1958. He received a master’s degree in 1959 from a short-lived publishing program at New York University, then joined the Anchor Books division of Doubleday.
He wryly noted in the 2014 interview for Rio Nuevo Publishers that he urged his company to “publish a fascinating trilogy by an English author,” but the top editor decided to pass on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit books.
Mr. Page lived in Washington from 1970 until the late 1980s, when he moved to New Mexico and later to Colorado. In his free time, he enjoyed painting, carving and keeping track of his six dogs.
His first marriage, to Aida Bound, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of more than 40 years, Susanne Anderson Page of Lyons; three daughters from his first marriage, Dana Page of Washington, Lea Page of Canterbury, N.H., and Brooke Page of Wenatchee, Wash.; three stepdaughters, Lindsey Truitt of Washington, Sally Truitt of Lyons and Kendall Barrett of Falls Church, Va.; a sister; two half sisters; a half brother; and 14 grandchildren.
Even while writing fiction, books on science and sweeping surveys of Indian life, Mr. Page maintained a busy schedule as a freelance writer. He often wrote for Smithsonian and other magazines, including stories about 19th-century polar expeditions, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, western novelist Zane Grey, vintage baseball and the medical miracle that is the humble aspirin.
All his stories were written in his characteristically graceful prose, as Mr. Page explained complex matters with simplicity, humor and clarity. After casually mentioning the Lone Ranger in his 2001 Smithsonian story about aspirin, Mr. Page quickly hit his stride:
“Thus did I metaphorically mount my great horse Silver and ride off into the microscopic wild lands of biochemistry. There, in and around every cell and through every vessel flow innumerable kinds of proteins, all in bewildering profusion, summoning each other to duty, catalyzing activities, changing form in a cascading continuum of mini-functions — the constantly changing chemical labyrinth that runs the overall operation that is you or me.”