Thursday, November 06, 2008

"Say it as it is" was my trouble in life: Charles M. Grossman

Today's oral history interview taping with Charles M. Grossman, M.D., left our small audience of three amazed, humbled, and feeling older than Grossman's young 94 years. After nearly three hours of conversation, we had barely scratched the surface of Grossman's fascinating and full life and career.

Beginning with the story of his involvement in the first successful clinical use of penicillin in the United States, Grossman went on to talk about his entrance into medicine as a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn, his years at NYU and his acceptance as the first NYU graduate to internship at Yale-New Haven Hospital. NYU was where Grossman met Claude Heaton, faculty advisor to both the William Welch Society and the student branch of the American League Against War and Fascism--both groups that Grossman eagerly joined.

After coming West to join Northwest Permanente, the medical group associated with the Kaiser shipyards in Vancouver, WA, Grossman found scant welcome from local organized medicine. Leaving the unprofitable Permanente practice, Grossman obtained an NIH grant and came up to the Hill to share Ed West's lab space in the Dept. of Biochemistry; his research resulted in several "firsts" published in the peer-reviewed literature. Unsalaried, he was nevertheless "fired" by then Acting Chair of Medicine Howard P. Lewis because the university feared that Grossman would be subpoenaed by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Grossman found a new home at Holladay Park in 1956, and stayed there a few years before moving on to the University of Portland in 1959; he remained on the faculty of UP for twenty-one years.

Founder of the Evans F. Carlson Friends of the People's Republic of China, active member and former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a man labeled as "a professional rabblerouser" by former Oregon Governor Tom McCall ("I didn't mind the rabblerouser part; what I objected to was the 'professional'"), Grossman has always told it as it was and always, always asked why.

Entertaining, enlightening, and lively, the interview captures some of Grossman's vitality, character, and charisma--but couldn't cover it all. Heck, we didn't even get a chance to ask him about his years of regular swims in the Columbia and Willamette Rivers (last swim for this year was Sept. 30; apparently it has gotten too cold now for more outings this year. I'd need a full wetsuit in mid-August!)

Luckily for future researchers, Dr. Grossman has begun bringing his personal papers and other records into Historical Collections & Archives, an armload at a time (though usually taking our stairs two at a time), delivering them after the weekly medicine grand rounds on Tuesday mornings. These materials, once compiled and processed, will shed even more light on Grossman's astonishing life.

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