Friday, November 20, 2009

Zane Grey and detective work: two more oral histories in the can

A definite thread ran through our two seemingly disparate interviews yesterday, one with dental materials researcher David Mahler, PhD, and one with occupational medicine physician William Morton, MD, DrPH. Both men were attracted to their respective fields by the prospect of being able to tackle an entire problem, rather than a single, small element of a question. Both received doctorates from the University of Michigan, and both wound up referencing genre fiction. Spooky!

Mahler, our morning interview, clearly articulated his attraction to his field by recalling his decision to switch from aerospace engineering to dental materials while at the University of Michigan. If he stayed in aerospace engineering, maybe he'd wind up working for Boeing and spend his entire career on an aileron; but in dental materials, "I could take an entire problem and apply my skills to the entire problem."

After graduating, Mahler was interested in joining a university where he could really contribute something. But when Kenneth Cantwell, DMD, invited him out to Oregon, Mahler found he was less attracted by the prospect of starting a department from the ground up and much more interested in Oregon fishing. As a boy, Mahler had repeatedly checked Zane Grey's Rogue River Feud out from his local library--his handwritten name filling line after line of the card at the back.

Once in Oregon, Mahler made quite a mark on the School of Dentistry, conducting one of the very first clinical research projects in dentistry (on creep in 8th graders); receiving nearly $23 million dollars in grant support from NIDR (in 2009 dollars), including a grant to purchase the state's second electron probe microanalyzer; and becoming a national authority on dental amalgam.

Morton, the afternoon interview, likened his problem-solving not to Westerns but to detective novels: gathering evidence, tracking down clues, and then putting all the data together to shed light on the mystery. After describing his early years, Morton recalled his decision to go into medicine: "I saw that doctors were in control of everything and knew everything," and so he enrolled at the University of Puget Sound in pre-med (his father being a Methodist minister, his tuition was waived).

As an "extern" at The Doctors Hospital in Seattle, Morton became familiar with "some of the less edifying aspects of medical practice", but his time there laid the groundwork for his later interest in environmental medicine. Coming to Oregon in 1967, Morton became the first member of the Dept. of Public Health who was primarily research-oriented. In the 1980s, when the AFL-CIO approached medical schools around the country to establish occupational health diagnostic clinics, Morton was placed in charge of the newly established Occupational Medicine Clinic at OHSU. As a result of the early cases they saw in the clinic, the group became the first in Oregon to diagnose chronic toxic encephalopathy.

Morton recalled that his tenure at OHSU "was very contentious, but it was fun." He likened himself to "a thistle blowing down the road"--you get caught on a lot more things when you have your spines out. But he "didn't pick a fight over everything I came across--there wasn't time."

We thank Drs. Mahler and Morton for agreeing to sit down with us and share their recollections and anecdotes. As always, interviews will be available in the OHSU Library after processing.

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