A writer, Keyes worked as an editor at Marvel under the legendary Stan Lee. In the early 1950s, he jotted down one of the ideas he came up with, which had taken years to gel. The single paragraph was titled “Brainstorm” — but Keyes didn’t submit it to Lee. “Something told me it should be more than a comic book script,” he said later. He finally wrote his story in 1958, for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine. “Flowers for Algernon” tells the story of experimental surgery done on a mouse (Algernon) that makes it super-intelligent. With that success, doctors try the surgery on a retarded human, Charley. As Charley becomes more and more intelligent, Algernon quickly declines and dies, and Charley realizes that’s his fate, too. His final wish, before he dies, is that someone would lay flowers on Algernon’s grave. The editor of Galaxy asked Keyes to change the ending to a happy one, but he refused. It was instead published in 1959 with Keyes’ ending in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — and it won the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Keyes then worked for several years to turn the story into a full-length novel, but again ran into editors — five of them, this time — wanting to change the ending. He again refused, and it was finally published by Harcourt, again with the title Flowers for Algernon, in 1966 — it tied with Babel-17 to win the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1967. In turn, the novel was turned into a motion picture, Charley, starring Cliff Robertson — who won the Academy Award for best actor.
The story and book raised several issues in American culture, particularly how the mentally disabled are treated by society. The novel has since sold over 5 million copies, has never gone out of print, and is used worldwide in schools — despite it being on the American Library Association’s end-of-the-century list of the most frequently “challenged” books (books targeted for censorship, especially in schools). Keyes, who had experience teaching mentally challenged students and had a degree in psychology, went on to write several other books, including a nonfiction exploration of a criminal with multiple personalities. He taught creative writing at Ohio University in Athens for more than 30 years. Upon his retirement in 2000, he was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Forty years after the original short-story publication, Keyes finished his memoirs and went to breakfast to celebrate. While eating he was reading the New York Times and spotted a headline: “Smarter Mouse Is Created in Hope of Helping People”. Keyes contacted the author of the mouse study, Dr. Joe Z. Tsien of Princeton, to ask when such a treatment might be used on humans. “After a long pause, Dr. Tsien said, ‘I expect it to happen in the next 30 years,’” Keyes wrote in an afterword to his memoirs, Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey. Keyes finished that journey on June 15 when he died from pneumonia at his home in Florida. He was 86.