More Great Thoughts: Medical advances

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(Host) In another installment of our series Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Peter Gilbert tells us about three path-breaking Vermont physicians.

(Gilbert) Many Vermont physicians have furthered scientific understanding. Let me mention three – one from the nineteenth century, one from the early twentieth, and one of the present day. The contributions of these men are enormous, and for me, personal.

William Beaumont was a Vermont doctor who, as an army surgeon stationed in Michigan in 1822, cared for a Canadian fur trader named Alexis St. Martin, who’d been shot through the stomach. The wound healed, but left a hole from the outside right into the stomach. This enabled Dr. Beaumont to observe directly human digestion.

He tied a string to pieces of food and retrieved them from the stomach periodically for examination as they were being digested. In a widely acclaimed book, he reported that food was digested purely by stomach secretions consisting in part of hydrochloric acid, secretions stimulated by the food’s presence in the stomach.

Dr. James B. Herrick was a Chicago physician who summered here for twenty years before retiring in Vermont in the 1930s and dying here in the early ’50s. Dr. Herrick was famous for two discoveries: he was the first person to diagnose a heart attack on a living patient. And, in 1910, examining a blood sample from a West Indian patient, he noted red blood cells that were “sickle-shaped” – hence “sickle cell anemia.” Dr. Herrick’s daughter married the oldest of three sons in a local Vermont family – my grandfather.

Finally, Dr. Charles Houston. Born in 1913, Dr. Houston literally wrote the book on high altitude diseases. His research on the effects of the lack of oxygen at high altitude spans the past fifty years. In the 1930s he led an expedition that climbed Nanda Devi in northern India and led the first American expedition to K2, the world’s second highest mountain. In the 1950s he was part of the first reconnaissance of Mt. Everest from the Nepal side and he returned to K2. Dr. Houston lives today in Burlington, Vermont.

Dr. Houston enlarged our understanding of High Altitude Retinal Hemorrhage, Cerebral Edema, and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, a disease in which fluid in the lungs obstructs the passage of oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream. It’s often fatal. I feel a special admiration for Dr. Houston because as a high-altitude mountaineer, I survived High Altitude Pulmonary Edema and Cerebral Edema – twice.

These days we think of advances in medicine as involving sophisticated laboratories, complex technology – the hardest of hard science. But it’s worth remembering that such scientific progress begins with ordinary individuals – unfortunate victims of accident or illness – whose fates cross with extraordinary and fortunate researchers such as these three doctors from Vermont.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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