Monday, December 01, 2008

In memoriam: Roy Laver Swank, 1909-2008

A small obituary notice in Saturday's Oregonian alerted readers to the death of Roy Laver Swank, M.D., four months shy of his one hundredth birthday.

Dr. Swank was born in Camas, WA, in 1909, and attended the University of Washington as an undergraduate. He obtained an M.D. and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1935. After completing his internship and residency at the Peter Bent Brigham in Boston, he took fellowships in pathology (Harvard), physiology (Karolinska) and neurology (Montreal Neurological). Swank returned to Boston and joined the staff at the Brigham and at Harvard Medical School, where he became an instructor in neurology. In 1948, he moved to Montreal to join McGill University as an assistant professor of neurology. It was in Montreal that Swank first began to investigate multiple sclerosis, and first developed the idea for the Swank low-fat diet.

In 1954, Swank came to Portland to serve as chief of the Division of Neurology at the University of Oregon Medical School. In 1961, he developed a blood filter for removing microemboli from the blood. In 1972, he published the first edition of his well-known book, The Swank Low-Fat Diet. In the early 1980s, Swank and Arthur J. Seaman confirmed the abnormality of plasma in MS patients and began experimenting with plasma transfusions as treatment for MS symptoms. For many years after his official retirement from the chair of neurology in 1974, Swank continued to see patients and conduct research on MS.

In his oral history interview with Joan Ash in 1998, Swank talks about his education, his research, and his years administering the Division of Neurology at UOMS. Along the way, he compares medical school to pulling ice (but with alcohol):
SWANK: So in those four years at medical school—now that we’ve gotten out of the university—I got interested in research, because that was part of the job, to do research, and I was allowed—I chose, really, a job similar to what my friend had been doing. I was going to work out the pyramidal tract, which was the cortical-spinal tracts from the brain down to the legs, in the rabbit, because they hadn’t been done satisfactorily. And I went to work and diligently worked hard. I was a hardworking individual, anyway. At the age of fourteen I had gotten a job pulling ice in the local butcher shop, there in Camas, and they paid me the top wage because I pulled ice so well. I even delivered ice for a while. I was not very big at that time.

ASH: What do you mean, pulled ice?

SWANK: You know, they freeze it; then you’ve got to pull it out of the freezer.

ASH: So it was heavy?

SWANK: Yeah. You had to slide it into a cooling area. My father, at the advice of the doctor, wouldn’t let me continue the next year because it might break my bones somehow or other and I wouldn’t get full growth, and that went by. But, nonetheless, it just gives an idea of the kind of—of how I enjoyed working and I was quite willing to work very hard.

Well, that’s what I did in medical school, too. I spent an enormous amount of time on my research, and I had to take the schoolwork also, along with it. I remember so well, I’d come back to the fraternity Saturday night, after I’d been working all day Saturday, and they’d be having a big party, and everybody was a little bit drunk, because that was time of—hard liquor was the common thing and the manly thing to do. I remember my only experience was, well, I’d go on in and see if everybody was having a good time, girls and boys and so forth, and I would have a few drinks, get sick, and come out and vomit on the steps, and go back to bed [laughter].

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