“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Mardi Gras, 1946
The first Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans since 1941 was very nearly a mass suspension of all social constraints and amenities. It was overwhelming, bordering on frightening.
We medical students, happy and bleary-eyed, rode above the mob on a float of the Rex Parade. Rex himself, our own surgeon hero, Alton Ochsner, toasted the Mardi Gras queens uninterruptedly along the parade route. From our perch on high, for hours on end, we ogled the lovers, laughed at the drunks and the dolled-up cross-dressers, and threw favors to the urchins and a half-million others cavorting in the streets. My! My!
This was Rex’s toast, approximately: “I, Rex, drink a toast to thee, beautiful lady, and to your ladies-in-waiting, on this great love feast of our people, Carnival. Surely, you are the fairest I’ve seen this day, m’lady!”
Of course, Rex made the same toast to each queen and princess at each reviewing stand along the meandering route to the Grand Ball of the Mardi Gras Society of Rex.
We were awfully proud of our chief, Alton Ochsner, Professor of Surgery; proud to be living in his time and studying under his tutelage. Certainly we were awed, intimidated, and sometimes terrified by him. But usually there was just enough twinkle in his eye, in mock horror at our ignorance, that unless we were caught in some egregious error of judgment, such as smoking cigarettes in the hospital, we were not permanently devastated by confrontations with him. Alton Ochsner was without doubt one of the more innovative and articulate forces in surgery of those days.
In the mid-1940s, Ochsner often spoke to us students about the causal link between cigarette smoking and cancer of the lung. It was a connection for which surgeon Evarts Graham of St. Louis and his resident, Ernst Wynder, received the scientific credit due them following their excellent documentation published in 1951. But we students already knew in 1946, with the certainty that only Alton Ochsner could convey, that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and, in fact, that it was about the only known cause, in 1946, for squamous-cell cancer of the bronchus.
But we admired our chief for more than this insight or for his surgical dexterity or his marvelous lectures. We were particularly in awe of him as Rex during this 1946 Carnival. In elegant wig and royal costume, he proposed toasts to all the queens of all the social clubs of the city, at every corner throughout the long parade route. We merely mortal attendants were able to slip off the back of the float at intervals during the day and dash into a neighborhood establishment for needed natural functions. Rex was the only figure of the parade who did not once leave his throne from early morning till late afternoon during that remarkable day. He managed this historical first with the aid of a specially constructed container hidden along his thigh, of sufficient capacity to carry him gracefully through the entire parade. We students, along with his chief resident who had assembled the device, were the only ones in the immense Carnival crowd who were privy to how he accomplished this prodigious feat.