Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Shameless promotion

In an act of shameless promotion, I offer the news that the January 4 issue of The Scribe, the newsletter of the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland, features the first in what we hope will become a popular, ongoing series of short articles on the history of medicine in Portland. I myself have not yet seen a paper copy, but I know it's out there (I've already received email about it). So, for those of you who may be interested in the article but are not in possession of the print issue, I offer the article in toto here below.

The new year, Janus-faced, is upon us. This year, we look forward to the 25th anniversary of The Scribe, and we turn our gaze to the mirror of history. In this space every month, I will give a glimpse of some notable person or event from Oregon’s medical history. The reflection we see will at times look foreign and surprising; at other times, it may look remarkably familiar.

Often, a trip into the past feels a bit like a trip through the looking-glass. Consider Herbert Merton Greene, M.D. (1878-1962), who in his youth was operator of the first x-ray machine on the West Coast. Early radiation exposure necessitated the amputation of his left hand and seriously damaged his eyesight, and when he contemplated the birth of the atomic age and the fallout from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he concluded that “heart failure is epidemic because human heart muscle is hypersensitive or allergic to light-weight negative electrons in atomic fallout.”

Or A.J. McLean, M.D. (1894-1938), Portland’s first neurosurgeon, who had trained on the East Coast and served a fellowship with Harvey Cushing before coming west in 1931. His abrasive style did not endear him to his fellow physicians, and the city’s medical establishment bore the brunt of his displeasure. At a meeting of the Multnomah County Medical Society in 1937, McLean delivered a scathing satire of medical professionalism, noting that “Among the enlightened places where one would expect not to find doddering adages still extant are hospitals. Yet the title of my paper, “Brain Tumors Always Die” is the factual recording of a remark made pre-operatively on three widely-separated occasions to different patients of mine by the sisters in a Portland hospital. The first time it occurred I believed it was but a repetition of the 1890 adage; the second time I wondered if that was the sole reason and after the third, I took my patients elsewhere, believing it useless to attempt cooperation for the patient’s benefit in such atmosphere.” When he died under mysterious circumstances in 1938, his will electrified the local community and made headlines nationwide, as he left “to 95 percent of Portland’s medical practitioners and their ethics, and the whole local organized medical profession, a lusty, rousing belch. To Portland’s thieving patients, the haphazard care they will receive for their chiseling tawdriness…. [and] To my name, oblivion.”

But glimpses of the past can also provide a mirror reflection of modern thoughts and mores. Take, for example, Amelia Ziegler, M.D., who began her practice in Portland in 1898. Participating in an “intensive free x-ray campaign” in 1952 to root out latent cases of tuberculosis, Ziegler observed that “preventive medicine is now brought within easy reach of everyone …. I have found that people often make the mistake of not seeing a doctor or having an x-ray because of fear that something serious might be discovered. The reason for getting a check-up is to prevent serious conditions. It pays to be sure.”

Or John E. Weeks, M.D., a New York ophthalmologist who moved to Portland in 1924 to be closer to his daughter and son-in-law, Frank Mount, M.D. In 1886, Weeks had co-discovered a bacterium responsible for acute epidemic conjunctivitis, which was subsequently named the Koch-Weeks bacillus in his honor. A successful physician with a keen interest in research and a love of learning, Weeks contributed $100,000 to the University of Oregon Medical School in the late 1930s to help fund the construction of a new medical library. At the dedication of that library, Weeks observed: “Pasteur has said that ‘chance favors only those who are prepared.’ As a matter of fact, only those who have knowledge of what has been accomplished in a given line of human endeavor are in a position to add to that knowledge, or to suggest procedures for possible advancement.”

Or the anonymous respondent who, completing a 1944 questionnaire from the Oregon State Medical Society on the future direction of the organization in the postwar period, felt compelled to offer the following advice: “Tabloid papers should be demanded and required by those in charge of programs. Short, snappy, thought-provoking papers are what I would like to see adopted. I think the membership can stand the shock of it.”

Next month, we will profile Esther Pohl Lovejoy, M.D. (1870-1967), wife, mother, physician, social reformer, congressional candidate, co-founder of the Medical Women’s International Association, and romance novelist.

The Scribe is provided free of charge to members of the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland. Questions about subscriptions and obtaining copies of issues can be directed to MSMP at 503-222-9977 or by email at

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