“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Oh! To Be a Research Fellow
I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.
Maybe — surely — this account fails so far to convey accurately the sacrifice and camaraderie, the excitement and mystique of being a research fellow. They are similar to, yet different from, sentiments of working together in a field team, a spirit I tried to capture in my earlier account, “On the Trail of Heart Attacks in Seven Countries.”
Being a researcher was more than I had a right to expect. At age 28, when I started hanging about the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, I had little preparation for or confidence in becoming one. But some feeling had stayed with me from a poorly organized chemistry hobby in childhood, nurtured no doubt by the intensity of long nights poring over chemistry and zoology assignments in college labs. On arrival as Research Fellow at The Lab, I took to vectorcardiography under Simonson and Schmitt with quickened ardor, surprised that I could grasp the concepts even superficially (they were master teachers). And I found infectious the sparkle and flow of Schmitt’s ideas and enthusiasm and of Simonson’s dogged persistence and drive.
The Faraday Cage they had just constructed in The Lab harkened back to my medical school experience, when, shielded in a similar cage free of electromagnetic interference, I had successfully made clean recordings in George Burch’s lab. in New Orleans. Moreover, the model torsos of grad. students that Schmitt had cast in plaster, one male, one female, were perfectly adapted to endless experimental permutations as we moved the dipole source about in their saline baths, seeking the more robust and most orthogonal surface leads. Their stereoptikon teaching toy that displayed the cardiac vectors in 3-D space was also a brilliant device, its simulation so realistic that you would unwittingly duck as the QRS loop flashed at your nose when you had located the maximal vector. Then, when they developed the electronics, in those pre-computer days, to measure and average and control automatically for respiratory modulation of the heart pacer, and to detect the earliest and latest ventricular activation potentials in any planar view from space, I was impressed — hooked — and readily pressed into service as Research Fellow.
One morning in The Lab I met Earl Bakken, then a biophysics graduate student, as he worked in The Cage on a project with Otto Schmitt. In our conversation he casually mentioned that he was engaged in his own project to develop an automatic cardiac pacemaker. Informally he sampled my views on what might be the need: “Well, in fact, Henry, I need to assess the market, in estimated cases per year,” that is, for such a pacer to deal with life-threatening heart block. Not yet able to think in population terms, and my clinical experience being not that vast, I suggested to him, “ a few hundreds, maybe as many as 1,000 cases a year in this country.”
How far off could I be; magnitudes? Even if he had offered me the purchase of shares in his enterprise, I surely would not have grasped the opportunity!
I suppose there might be a reader who does not recognize the irony here. Earl Bakken founded Medtronics, Inc., the first and most successful of medical high-tech, mega-value firms.
My biophysico-stereo-vector-electrocardiographic masters thesis complete, I became the side-kick of visiting professor Brian Bronte-Stewart. He was, I believe, the brightest, most enthusiastic, and conceptually wealthy of the younger international researchers in the new field investigating diet, blood lipids, and the pathogenesis of fatty arteries (atherosclerosis). Newly arrived from John Brock’s service in Capetown, he actively explored the hypothesis that atherosclerosis might be a disease of relative essential fatty acids deficiency. That was such a highly attractive theory of the day that all were especially cautious about embracing it.
While he pursued this lead, he charged me to work on fat tolerance, reflected in the curve of plasma chylomicron levels after a standard large fatty load. With Nedra Foster’s good pancake breakfasts, we managed to get almost 100 g fat into our human guinea pigs each morning and measured clearance hourly by simple light-dispersion nephelometry.
I got particularly interested in the idea of blood sludging at or near the plasma fatty peak, four to eight hours post-meal. We jerry-rigged an old Leitz slit lamp stuck off in a corner of the lab. to produce a startlingly clear, magnified view of rouleaux formation in red cells as they coursed through the conjunctival capillaries. They occasionally produced before our eyes some stupendous traffic jams in that micro-circulation. I watched and photographed the tumbling cells for hours, all the while spinning yarns for our subjects whose head and jaw were fixed and eyes hypnotically focused on a point of my forehead.
Unfortunately, with our beautiful direct view of the capillaries, we could establish no consistent relationship among blood cell clumping, lipase activity, and the curve of fat tolerance, which would have suggested mechanisms for hypoxia and for damage in blood vessels from the effects of repeated fatty meals on blood rheology. Somehow, the idea still sounds good to me. The fasting state is the least physiologic, n’est-ce pas ?
Bronte and I often let off steam on Sundays by fly-fishing for bass with surface poppers in a private farm lake west of the cities. There I exposed him to the quality of Heileman’s Special Export as well as to that of midwest angling. On our drives back to the cities, I also introduced him to jazz and blues in the black bars then clustered along Olson Highway across from “the project.” Meanwhile, he exposed me to the wonders of hypothesis testing in laboratory and clinical experiments, as well as to an occasional dizzying drag on his ever-present cigarette, a Camel regular. I experienced a real let-down intellectually when he, with his intense and sunny character, left us in favor of a UK professorship. Sadly, it wasn’t long afterward that Camel carcinogens took him away rapidly with bladder cancer, at age 42. I miss Bronte’s inspiration and humor.
Mario Mancini, Italian jeune homme de bonne famille, now one of the grand men of clinical metabolism internationally, came under Keys’s spell during their stay in Naples in 1951, a visit that started the ball of cross-cultural epidemiology rolling. In those days, Keys was one of the few recognized clinical researchers in human physiology and metabolism related to diet, lipids, and heart attacks. In the early 50s Mancini spent a time with us at Stadium Gate 27, working on hemostatic test methods suitable for clinical and population studies. During his visit, Orma and I borrowed one of his tests, the plasma stypven time, to study the acute effects of cigarette smoking on blood clotting among patients in Hastings State Hospital. There wasn’t much effect.
One summer eve, when Mancini and I had “guaranteed” fresh fish for a weekend dinner invitation at the Klepetar’s home in St. Paul, and when we proceeded to get “skunked” fishing the St. Croix River, we dropped in at a riverside trout farm and caught a nice mess of pellet-raised brown trout, all rigorously the same 10-inch size. At least, we kept our fishy promise for dinner.
I remember that day also for Mario’s frequent exclamations about the orderliness of Minnesota drivers, who then were courteous, kept safe intervals, and never switched lanes unannounced or screeched a brake or mashed a claxon. Typical Italian motorist, he was in wonder over such self-discipline en masse.