The Red Gods Call

When I fly out of JFK airport and can look out from a window seat I gaze at the empty marsh below instead of the Manhattan skyline after our wheels lift off runway 4L.  I’m thinking about Bob Morris, the New York surgeon I wrote about last time, and imagine him stalking a raft of ducks. The T.S.A. would not be happy if our pilot reported him leveling a twelve gauge between the reeds. But Bob left the marsh long ago.

The Jo Co Marsh was his favorite hunting ground after arriving as a medical student in New York City in the 1880s. At the end of the day’s work at Bellevue Hospital or the Cornell Clinic or assisting with surgery on patients in their own homes (it was more risky in hospital early in his career) he would often catch a train from Penn Station in Midtown to Rockaway, the closest drop-off point for Jamaica Bay. He’d collect his firearm from a friend at the Atlantic Hotel before heading to the marsh.  When ducks and geese were not in season, he’d pick up fishing gear instead. There were plenty of striped bass, bluefish, porgies, flounders, and sheepsheads in the Broad Channel. Sometimes a friend helped to set lobster pots, catch soft shell crabs, or collect all the oysters they could cart back to the hotel for a roast. They had sea appetites and marine treasure to satisfy them.

The Bay was still quite productive by the 1930s, even as the metropolis was encroaching on his paradise. He now visited the marsh with a camera instead of a gun, and was a patron of the Audubon Society. He wanted the Jo Co to become a bird sanctuary, and its channels and little islands “forbidden to visitors.” Now that ninety airlines operate from the airport and the marsh is closed to the public he seems to have gotten his wish, if not all his hopes. The din of Rolls Royce engines a few hundred feet overhead is a better bird scarer than anything heard on a farm.

Reaching a more reflective age, he wrote, “When a man retires from the swift rapids of an active professional life he arrives at a long stillwater, but the banks of that stillwater are so alive that his days continue to be brimful.”  He had heard “the Red Gods calling him to go” to borrow an expression from his soul-mate, Rudyard Kipling. There was still time to pursue his love of nature after the years of work, but they would be spent elsewhere.

He retired to his own sanctuary which he had purchased serendipitously on a whim many years earlier.  It was a 440 acre estate near Stamford, Connecticut, and was rich in wildlife and virtually unspoiled. He was sanguine about leaving behind his career as a renowned surgeon, knowing how quickly fame fades. He was one of the first to bring aseptic surgery to America and had made many innovations in wound healing and in what today is called minimal access operations. He was comfortable, even anxious, to move on to the next phase of life, and would have cared little that along with a few others I had started to focus a light on his legacy.  He wrote, “I felt that I had been born for the woods, the rivers, the mountains, and the sea. Anyone who wanted New York might have it and all that was in it. My light heart was out of doors. Only my heavy feet remained in town.” He couldn’t resist the call of the Red Gods: it was as if the poetic right side of his brain had gotten the better of his professional left.

The estate, called Merribrooke, lay barely 18 miles from New York City limits.  While he couldn’t protect Jamaica Bay, at least he had more control over his own property and could dedicate his time there to conservation, writing, and horticulture. He even honed his grafting skills to try to bring back the American chestnut which had become almost extinct from an imported blight.

There can be little doubt from his memoirs that this was one of the happiest times of his life, blessed by the arrival of a daughter, Mary, in his graying years. There was a dark side. It wasn’t the burden of owning such a large estate, but the responsibility he felt for preserving a beautiful place for future enjoyment. He had plenty of run-ins with corporations and lawyers who wanted to develop the land or divert the Mianus River running through his property down to the sparkling Long Island Sound. “If succeeding owners can keep Merribrooke as a wild park for centuries to come with residences only on road frontage I shall ask these other people to be grateful to me for preserving a beauty spot intact near New York City at great personal effort and financial loss while “improvement” ogres stood about with snuffers all ready for putting out Nature’s light.” Those words, which we rediscovered among his papers, were scrubbed out of the original manuscript for his Fifty Years a Surgeon (1936).

Merribrooke largely survives today as the Mianus River Park, a fine woodland with public access.  A Park website gives no clue whether anyone knows how such a place avoided being swallowed up by developers, or at what personal cost. Bob would have shrugged his shoulders – we are all forgotten sooner or later.

I was musing about his life on a flight from JFK to Virginia. As we flew parallel to the East River I saw on its banks the gray stone edifice of the New York Presbyterian Hospital which houses Weill Cornell Medical College. My wife and I worked at the College until we took early retirement, so many decades after Morris.

I used to regularly attend Grand Rounds in the hospital to keep pace with advances in other specialties. The Rounds were generally full, but quite a number of seats were taken by doctors of advanced years, some so advanced they leaned on their canes or struggled on the stairs. They all wore freshly-laundered white coats. These were distinguished men whom, a generation earlier, you might have asked to care for a sick relative or for yourself, but now…? One of them, a former departmental chairman, confessed to me, “It’s pathetic that we can’t keep away … can’t give it up.”

Many people never hear the Red Gods calling, and some unfortunately can’t afford to go, but for the rest I urge them to go – go – go.  Abandoning the vocation you love is painful, but there is a time for grasping something you feel passionate about, that has been held in suspension for years, before the chance slips away forever – if not nature study, then golf or painting or DIY or growing bonsai trees, or anything else for the sake of heart’s ease. Women seem to be more successful in this than men.  The call came urgently to me because my father never had the chance to go, and Bob’s died a few months after finishing his heavy duties as the Governor of Connecticut.

He must go — go — go away from here!

On the other side the world he’s overdue.

‘Send your road is clear before you where the old Spring-fret comes o’er you,

And the Red Gods call for you!

From The Red Gods by Rudyard Kipling

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Serendipity or Chance

The King of Serendip (Sri Lanka) sent his three sons away to a foreign country to experience life in the real world.  They got into trouble, as boys will, when a merchant accused them of stealing a camel he had lost.  Although they had never seen the beast, the boys came under suspicion after cleverly figuring clues from chance observations – it was lame, one-eyed, missing a tooth, and carrying a pregnant woman with a jar of honey.

The Three Princes of Serendip is a Persian fairy tale, like Aladdin and Sinbad of the One Thousand and One Nights. When Horace Walpole translated the story over two hundred years ago he coined the word “serendipity” which Webster’s dictionary defines as an aptitude for making happy discoveries by chance.Book- Three princes

The word did not become fashionable until the last century, so there is evidently more serendipity around now! I have heard scientists, including myself, declaring they had made a serendipitous discovery, so it does not necessarily imply anything superstitious. But I have also heard people say that a discovery coming by accident or out of the blue was a “miracle”. Whether that was meant to be taken literally I don’t know, but the mind of science has great difficulty understanding how anything can break the basic laws of physics. But I could call something that happens naturally a miracle if it comes most unexpectedly just when I needed it.  Timing was important for the three princes too, because someone stumbled on the lost camel just in time for them to be pardoned by the ruler of the country.

If readers of this post were asked to share their best serendipity stories I guess we could publish a book far more absorbing than the Three Princes (which I never finished).  Everyone I know has a cache of them.  I can’t explain why one I heard a while ago stays at the forefront of my mind, but I did find it arresting at the time.

It was a story of an old man in his final hours. His daughter seated at his bedside asked if there was anything she could get for him, perhaps thinking he was thirsty. The only thing he wanted was to hear once more the old hymn, Amazing Grace, but he didn’t have the CD or even a music player.  She said that barely a few minutes later they heard through the wall of the next apartment a choir singing that very hymn.  It is admittedly a popular piece, but the chance of a neighbor playing it at the “right” moment was astonishingly slight, and left her with a wonderful memory of the last moments shared with her father.

Serendipity popped into my mind because I have had a strange series of happy discoveries lately. The story started unassumingly twenty years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was working on a new research project to test ovarian transplants in sheep (the very same flock that later produced Dolly the cloned sheep). When the newspapers ran the story I felt like scalding water had been poured over me, but the project turned out well in the end. The experiments helped to launch transplants for helping young women to conceive who would otherwise have remained sterile.

Unlike most of my peers who steadily ignore library archives and only access journals online from their desktops, I love to blow the dust off an old book.  I suppose there is something of an antiquarian inside me. One day, soon after completing my experiment, I was perusing the 1895 issue of the New York Medical Journal when I stumbled on a brief report by a New York surgeon, Robert T. Morris, M.D. He described two ovarian transplants he had recently performed with mixed success in women.  I had been scooped a century ago!  On the one hand, I felt delighted to have an opportunity to show off my scholarship by referring to his arcane paper when I came to publish my own work; on the other, I was disappointed to have been beaten.  Every young scientist wants to be first for something.

Bob Morris
Bob Morris

I got over the disappointment and in 2010 published a short biography of Dr. Morris in a medical journal. I thought nothing more about it until the day I received an unexpected email.

It was sent by his grand-daughter on behalf of her mother, Mary, who had been striving for years to bring more attention to her father’s achievements. Since neither of them had worked in medicine I was surprised they had noticed my work, and amazed that the daughter of a man born before the American Civil War had contacted me.

I corresponded with Mary until she passed away last autumn, but her mission continues as I work with her daughter to republish some of his work together with his unpublished manuscripts.  The deeper I probed the more spellbound I became by the man’s life story which reflected almost everything I cherished or ever wanted to do and be. Not only was he a famous surgeon with a rare scientific outlook for his day, but he was an explorer, a naturalist, a conservationist, and a gifted writer and poet.  The final serendipity, or should I call it irony, was the most affecting. I found that our families are related by marriage.

If Horace Walpole will be remembered down the ages for giving us the word “serendipity”, perhaps I can take credit for coining “super-serendipity” for a string of chance happenings.  Come on Mr. Webster, give me immortality!

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