Of Many Things

I confess; I am a pack rat. Let those who would point a bony finger or raise a censorious eyebrow take comfort. I suffer from this. I know that I shouldn’t be living in a secondhand bookstore, still less on a rubbish tip. And I promise to reform. The gift of 50 trash bags, 30-gallon size, from a dear friend was truly appreciated. And they went onto the top of one of my debris fields.

 

One weekend I went into my “really important” drawer looking for some postage stamps. I found none, but I did find there a “really important” document, my International Certificates of Vaccination, as approved by the World Health Organization. It reminded me that I had been undergoing a life-threatening procedure, with alarming regularity, for several decades.

Vaccination against smallpox was normal when I was a child. Jean Gowing, M.D., didn’t even blink in 1960 when she vaccinated me, not for the first time, since I was “going to a Pennsylvania college.” Nor did I complain when John Reddington, M.D., did it yet again nine years later, when I was going abroad. Only three years more passed when Robert Haile, M.D., did it again, for some good reason now not remembered, and two years after that James Garber, M.D.

Now we are not talking country doctors here, though Jean, Robert and Jim would have taken pride in that term. We are talking major research physicians, N.I.H., Mayo, Women’s Medical College, etc. Vaccination was routine and unquestioned.

That attitude prevailed widely. In 1974, on March 12 to be precise, George B. Malone-Lee, M.D., F.R.S.P., vaccinated me and gave me a shot against cholera—so certified the health officer of the London Borough of Camden two weeks later.

All of which raises some questions. The first one is, when am I going to find the yellow pamphlet that tells me I was also vaccinated in France in 1980? I am sure I have the card somewhere, and I remember Dr. Simone Lainey insisting on the procedure. I trusted her totally but was skeptical of the French bureaucracy that would have to certify it. She sent “Cher Père Dennis” to some buddy of hers in a quiet office in the 17th District in the north of Paris. I got a cup of coffee and the proper stamp.

The second question is the more serious one. Given the current hype in the media about smallpox and vaccination against it, am I to believe that Jean Gowing, Robert Haile, James Garber, George Malone-Lee and Simone Lainey were careless about my survival? “I don’t think so,” to quote a current cliché. Were they ill-informed? Hardly. Simone even had on her prescription forms, as required by convention and law, the cachet that she was an “ancien intern des hospitaux des Paris.” Anyone could tell this lady was on the A team. And she vaccinated her patients routinely.

A hundred years before Dr. Simone was assaulting my arm in her surgery in the Boulevard Raspail, not 300 yards away in the Rue des Sevres, the French Jesuit pontifices who governed were discussing a perennial topic: “What is wrong with our young men?” One of the answers recorded in the minutes of the meeting was “vaccination.” This was offered by a father who had doubtless read the then recent article in the French Jesuit monthly examining the dangers of blood transfusion.

When, in the 1970’s, I read that article from the 1870’s, I laughed at how primitive the analysis seemed. Now some of the points raised there are being taken seriously once again, but for proper medical reasons.

And this is the conclusion of my musings after finding my “really important” medical certificate. “Proper medical reasons” are decisions best left to the proper medical practitioners whom we trust.

The chance to recall the great goodness of Jean Gowing and Simone Laynez, now gone to God, and the likes of Joseph Philbin, David and Jean Case, Bradley and Elizabeth Sevin and Helen Grady Cole, still gloriously healing, suggests that there may be more in the debris fields that is worth keeping.

Certainly anything that reminds us of the good done by good doctors is worth a thought and a prayer of gratitude.

10 years 5 months ago
I very much enjoyed reading Of Many Things by Dennis M. Linehan, S.J., in the Aug. 4 issue and his kind words regarding the medical profession. As a recently retired physician, I came to be increasingly aware of the growing cynicism and mistrust of the general public toward the medical profession in the latter years of my career. I can assure you that the vast majority of physicians take the Hippocratic Oath very seriously and try our best to live up to it. And yes, we do need everyone’s prayers and appreciate them very much.

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