Nicholas Hughes

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Nicholas Hughes
Nicholas Farrar Hughes

(1962-01-17)January 17, 1962
North Tawton, Devon, England,
United Kingdom[1]
DiedMarch 16, 2009(2009-03-16) (aged 47)
Cause of deathSuicide by hanging
ResidenceFairbanks, Alaska
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom-United States (dual citizenship)[2]
Alma materUniversity of Oxford (B.A., M.A.)
University of Alaska Fairbanks (Ph.D.)
Known forStream salmonid ecology
Scientific career
FieldsFisheries biology
InstitutionsUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks

Nicholas Farrar Hughes (January 17, 1962 – March 16, 2009)[3] was an English-American fisheries biologist known as an expert in stream salmonid ecology.[4][5][6] Hughes was the son of the American poet Sylvia Plath and English poet Ted Hughes and the younger brother of artist and poet Frieda Hughes. He and his sister were well known to the public through the media when he was a small child, especially after the well-publicized suicide of his mother. Hughes held dual British/American citizenship.[2]

Early life[edit]

Nicholas was born in North Tawton, Devon, England in 1962. Through his father's mother, Hughes was related to Nicholas Ferrar (1592 – 1637).[7]

After her son was born, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous collection of poems (the posthumously published Ariel), and published her semi-autobiographical novel about mental illness, The Bell Jar. In the summer of 1962, Ted Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill; Hughes and Plath separated in the autumn of 1962. On February 11, 1963, while Nicholas, age one, and his sister Frieda, two and a half, slept upstairs, Plath taped shut the doorframe of the room in which the children slept, then placed towels around the kitchen door to make sure fumes could not escape to harm the children, and committed suicide using the toxic gas from the kitchen oven.[8]

Plath addressed one of her last poems, "Nick and the Candlestick", to her son:

O love, how did you get here?
O embryo...

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

After their mother's death, Ted Hughes took over the care of his two children, and raised them with his second wife, Carol, on their farm in Devon[9] after their marriage in 1970.[10] Despite the posthumous fame of Sylvia Plath, and the growing literary and biographical writings about her death, Nicholas was not told about the circumstances of his mother's suicide until the 1970s.[4][11] In 1998 Hughes published Birthday Letters, over 30 years of poems about Plath, which he dedicated to his two children.

In the poem "Life After Death" Hughes recounts how:

Your son's eyes.... would become
So perfectly your eyes,
Became wet jewels
The hardest substance of the purest pain
As I fed him in his high white chair.[12]

Professional career[edit]

Hughes was passionate about wildlife, especially fish.[4] He attended Oxford University, receiving a BA degree in zoology in 1984.[2] From 1984 to 1991 he worked in Fairbanks, Alaska as a research assistant at the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, part of the Biological Resources Division of the United States Geological Survey, and from 1990 to 1991 he was a student intern with the Sportfish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.[2] In 1991 he earned a Ph.D. in biology from University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).[2][6]

After receiving his doctorate, Hughes held a variety of positions, instructing at UAF's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in 1991-1992 and working as a research associate with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology from 1992 to 1998. He held a post-doctoral fellowship from 1993 to 1995 with the Behavioral Ecology Research Group at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia and was a research associate there from 1995 to 1998.[2] In September 1998 he became an assistant professor in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science at UAF.[2] Hughes studied stream salmonid ecology and conducted research both in the Alaska Interior and in New Zealand.[4] He was a member of the American Fisheries Society.[2]

During his scientific career, Hughes made notable contributions to the field of stream ecology and was considered a prominent Alaskan biologist. According to a Fairbanks reporter, Dermot Cole:

The focus of Nick's professional life... dealt with what might appear to be a simple question, but was extraordinarily complex: "Why do fish prefer one position over another?" The logic of his research was that the combination of water flow and the streambed guide the way natural selection influences the behavior of individual salmon, grayling, trout and other species... A few times, I called him to let him know I would like to write about his life and his family connections, whenever a news story about his parents appeared, but he did not think it was a good idea, so it never happened. He deserved his privacy.... Here he was not a literary figure forever defined by the lives of his parents.[13]

He resigned from his faculty position at UAF in December 2006, but continued to pursue his scientific research,[6] and was a key scientist in an ongoing study of king salmon at the time of his death.[14]


On March 16, 2009, Hughes hanged himself in his home in Fairbanks, Alaska.[3][15] According to his sister Frieda[16] and his UAF colleagues,[17] he had been depressed.


  1. ^ Plath, Sylvia. (2000). The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962. Ed. by Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books. p. 531. ISBN 0-385-72025-4.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Hughes, Nicholas F. (n.d.) Curriculum Vitae. In "Fisheries Faculty Curriculum Vitae", School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks, ca. March 2008. Accessed 2009-03-24.
  3. ^ a b Hoyle, Ben (March 23, 2009). "Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath's son commits suicide". The Times. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved March 23, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d O'Connor, Anahad (March 23, 2009). "Son of Sylvia Plath commits suicide". The New York Times. Retrieved March 23, 2009.
  5. ^ "Passings". Los Angeles Times. March 24, 2009. Retrieved March 24, 2009.
  6. ^ a b c "Remembering Dr. Nicholas Hughes, January 17, 1962 - March 16, 2009". School of Fisheries & Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Accessed 2009-03-23.
  7. ^ Butscher, Edward (1976) Sylvia Plath: method and madness. New York: Seabury Press; p. 284
  8. ^ "Sylvia Plath". From the Academy of American poets. Retrieved 2009-03-23.
  9. ^ Mendick, Robert. (2009--3-23). "History repeats as Sylvia Plath’s son kills himself." Evening Standard (London, UK).
  10. ^ Evening Standard. (2009-3-23). "Ted Hughes' son found hanged." Evening Standard (London, UK).
  11. ^ "Nicholas Hughes son of Sylvia-Plath and Ted Hughes commits suicide". Daily Telegraph. London. 2009-03-23. Retrieved 2009-03-23.
  12. ^ Hughes, Ted "Life After Death", Birthday Letters, Faber, 1998
  13. ^ Cole, Dermot (March 23, 2009). "Nicholas Hughes, son of major poets, emerged as prominent Alaska biologist". Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Archived from the original on March 26, 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-23.
  14. ^ Italie, Hillel. (2009-03-23). "Poet Sylvia Plath's son, a prominent Fairbanks biologist, takes own life." Associated Press. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
  15. ^ "Poet Plath's son takes own life". BBC News. March 23, 2009. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Barstow, David (April 11, 2009). "A New Chapter of Grief in Plath-Hughes Legacy." The New York Times.

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