Another Jew Without Money

I

IF I were going to be a successful scientist in America, there are several specific things I should certainly avoid if at all possible. For one thing, I should not be a Jew if I could help it. For another, I should not lack those higher symbolic university degrees calculated so usefully to simulate intellectual ability in the mentally sterile. For a third, I should avoid attacking a problem upon which the bigwigs of science or the medical profession had recently made up their minds and unmistakably expressed themselves. In the fourth place, I should certainly seek to avoid problems the pursuit of which would lead inevitably to the disclosure that thousands in this land of plenty are habitually underfed — a disclosure that is bound to be vexatious to members of the classes that profit thereby, whose emotional tranquillity it is wiser not to disturb. Finally, I should aim not to be equipped with an annoying sense of unswerving ethical probity.

This sounds like rather a large order. It is. Many failures in science can be attributed largely to disregard for only one or two of these five prohibitions — say the second and the third, for instance. But economic and professional regeneration (in another sphere) can likewise often be attributed to the fact that the individual’s sense of ethical probity unaccountably compromises on occasion with the bleak realities of the preferment methods which obtain in a singularly unethical profit economy. On this occasion my subject is a really great man and a really distinguished scientist who managed eventually, especially after his death, to attain a very respectable modicum of deference and adulation in spite of the fact that he violated every one of the items in my list of prohibitions. He was a Jew. He had no ‘scientific’ degree. He solved a problem which medicine considered already solved, though his solution reversed the one then held true. His study involved disclosures of starvation on the part of thousands in this favored land of the gods, and he had about the most rigidly imperturbable ethical sense that I ever came across in any individual. The man was Joseph Goldberger. I talked long with his widow the other evening.

I had reached her by skirting carefully the choicer parts of a Washington suburb inhabited largely by exponents of what Veblen well called the art of conspicuous waste. I found her in a most unpretentious home, living within the penumbra of poverty, in circumstances and with furnishings remote in quality from those common in the homes of successful brokers, realtors, automotive experts, and morticians. She was a nervous woman who smoked cigarettes rapidly as she told me about her husband. She has three fine children living with her, each one obviously meriting education, and she is trying to get a job, so that they may all be educated. Coming of a wealthy New Orleans family, but retaining not a single Southern prejudice, she successfully wedded her cultured Gentile refinement to what was noble in this East Side Jew without money, and she exists now on the meagre pension our government is sufficiently generous to give the widows of its Walter Reeds, for really tangible pensions must be reserved for the higher retired officers of the army and the navy. Not that she complains; she accepts this as her lot. She is socially conscious and thoroughly able to realize the uncomfortable predicament of a pure scientist in an acquisitive society. She realizes also that it is better, as things are, to pay large salaries to superb circumlocution experts who laboriously secrete enormous memoranda giving subordinates detailed instructions in the art of official obfuscation, than to pay them to fundamental scientists.

So things are, then, and she does not complain. This man Goldberger was a Jew. He was a Hungarian emigrant. His brothers bore packs on their backs and peddled goods. Paul de Kruif, in his breathless, syncopated way, using words like impudent flails, which batter the mind as do the tonic excreta of jazz orchestras, said some little about him in Hunger Fighters. But Goldberger’s personal dignity commands more respect than that. He started life with the handicap of being a Jew, and in science, as elsewhere, that is not just the best thing to be. Prejudices are often subtle rather than overt, but preferment is tardy. Recognition can be had, but far less quickly than by some Gentile fop who escaped the heritage of Israel. Yet, in spite of this handicap, Goldberger, at long last, won favorable notice.

Educationally he was an interloper; he came in through a side entrance. He began the study of engineering in college, but heard a lecture on the circulation of the blood which thrilled him so that he changed over to medicine. He pursued this course, performed his interneship, won his medical degree, and ultimately began the practice of medicine in a small city. But the bills were too much for him. He could not bring himself to charge the rich as much as he should, and he could bring himself to charge the poor nothing at all. When a patient died, he canceled the bill, because he felt he had failed. With ethical probity so curious as that, he was bound to fail in medicine corporately organized on a private, individualistic guild basis, and depending upon merciless acquisitiveness for a livelihood.

II

It was then that Goldberger entered the Public Health Service as a surgeon, though he never performed surgical work there. He was impressed into nutrition work. In 1914 the problem of pellagra began to absorb him. Lacking the stamp of authenticity as he did, he was regarded askance by sterile doctors of philosophy whose brains were sealed and placed in permanent storage on the day they began to write ‘Ph.D.’ portentously after their names. For Goldberger was ’only’ an M.D. But he worked on none the less. He was not a vacuum surrounded by an education; he had authentic mental power. Soon he had unmistakable evidence that this scourge which kept thousands upon thousands of Southerners ill and dying was nutritional, not infectious, in origin. As empirical theory this idea was old; Goldberger established it as scientific fact. In orphanages he discovered that the nurses and doctors who ate good food never contracted pellagra, but the child victims who were fed grits, corn bread, and molasses almost universally had the disease. Plaintively he sought to have meat, milk, and green vegetables added to the diets of these sufferers, and also to attract attention to the fact that the disease was widely prevalent in the South.

Both efforts met with stern opposition. The medical profession had been committed to the belief that pellagra was an infectious disease, and it did not, as a vested interest, intend to surrender easily. Medicine has long been skeptical of nutrition anyway, and even to-day many leading physicians seriously doubt the efficacy of vitamins and mineral salts to accomplish therapeutic ends. In spite of Goldberger’s rapidly accumulating proofs, prejudice died hard; he was laughed at, ridiculed, and his work impeded. In addition to that, every time he sought to call attention to the widespread prevalence of this disease among the ignorant and the economically * underprivileged ’ classes, he was sternly rebuked by the local gentry in Chambers of Commerce and Rotary Clubs, who for business reasons declined to believe unpleasant truths. Worse still, public health officers from the South would storm Washington declaring fervently that the disease did not exist in their communities, after Goldberger, in his objective scientific way, reported what he saw there with his own eyes.

All this it was difficult for him to understand. He returned to his wife and often told her tales of what he had seen, and wept as he spoke. He mentioned the young woman who told of her family living ‘well’ on thirty-four dollars a month. But this large income was reduced when she had to go to the hospital. Finally, illness and other contingencies also prevented two of her children from working in the cotton fields. Later still, her husband was reduced to odd jobs. Ultimately the income became two dollars a month and she looked at Goldberger wide-eyed and said, ‘You know we just could n’t make out on two dollars a month,’ to which he solemnly replied, ‘I was just wondering how you managed on the thirty-four dollars.’ He went with the woman to her home, found the husband and two children abed with pellagra, dug down in his own pocket to afford immediate relief, and later said to his wife, ‘If it were just that one case! But it is n’t. The South is full of such cases. There are thousands upon thousands of them.’ This was under the ægis of Coolidge, when Prosperity was in the saddle.

In his naïve way Goldberger felt that if he could somehow get an endowment, pick out a really bad Southern community, go in with hygienists and nutrition experts and educate the people, wiping out pellagra, this would set a good example to the opulent and somewhat ventrally distended gentlemen who desired to hear nothing of poverty and distress in their respective communities. His wife is striving right now to get a job with the Red Cross to lead a crusade of this character. The ideal is noble. Upon reflection one wonders, however, whether the regeneration of these pellagra-stricken people can ever be accomplished effectively under a social and economic régime which places a premium upon greed and profits, and can ill afford to finance work of such fundamental scientific importance as that in which Goldberger was engaged.

This brings to mind his ethical probity. Goldberger could have made money. He could have made it posthumously, in fact. For his wife showed me a letter which had come but a week or so earlier from a well-known medical charlatan who desired the privilege of using Goldberger’s name and an apposite — but carefully edited and garbled — quotation from an authentic scientific paper of his to confirm the excellence of a quack health food he was exploiting. During his lifetime Goldberger could have made plenty of money — twenty or thirty thousand dollars a year if he had wished. All he had to do was act a bit unethically and devote his talents to antisocial ends. For America has riches always to throw into the bank accounts of those who will so utilize their ability as to exploit the gullibility of others.

Had he had an advanced scientific degree, — in short, a Ph.D., — Goldberger could have had a professorship at Yale. Perhaps if he had countenanced a personal appeal which could have been made for him to Mr. Taft he might have had the position, degree or no degree. But that was not his idea of scientific advancement. He sternly decided against the technique of special pleading. If they wanted him, they must invite him to come, degree or no degree. But the presentation of a professorship to a man who merely had scientific genius is perhaps too much to expect on the part of any wealthy university dealing in degrees on what Flexner has described as a bargaincounter basis — selling education, but relatively careless of the quality of the education sold or of the innate ability of the educated to absorb such education.

The University of Chicago was more liberal. It was at one time willing to take Goldberger on its staff without quibbling over a higher degree. But it wanted him to devote himself to one specific problem — dementia prœcox, a problem which did not interest him and upon which he had never worked. He talked the matter over with his wife. He said, ‘I should like the salary; it would be a great thing for you and the children; but I should not like the work at all.’ She replied, ‘Then why consider it for a single instant?’— which ended the conversation and the idea. Though he was away from her ten months of the year, though even his own relatives thought he neglected his family shamelessly, she grasped the nature of those ruthless forces which impelled him to pursue science even in opposition to his own personal good.

III

A more conscientious man never lived. A more cautious writer there could not have been. He was one scientist who never retracted. He consistently prepared his papers in such manner that he could sustain his conclusions against all onslaughts, and he never had to admit an error or take back a statement. Within a year or so, a leading biochemist had to publish in most humiliating form, in the Biochemical Journal, a long paper in which he acknowledged and lamely sought to extenuate careless errors he had made in several previous papers. Goldberger was never forced to such extremities. He would not even permit himself to gloat over the mistakes of colleagues, and in the dispute about blacktongue in dogs as an analogue of pellagra in humans, — an assumption denied by Mendel of Yale, — out of deference to his opponent he actually refused ever to make the flat statement that the two diseases were closely analogous. Yet he had seemingly incontrovertible facts to sustain him all the time.

Well, he worked along for a number of years on pellagra. He saw a great deal of distress and poverty, and realized that thousands of Southerners are held guilty of low intelligence, whereas their real deficiency is purely nutritional. He was agonized that so few seemed to be interested in this problem, and annoyed that, when he called attention to it, political exigencies compelled him to soften his words — for were not various candidates for office extolling our widespread prosperity at the very moment? Was it not customary for our statesmen to tell the world that American working people thrive, prosper, have their cars, and own their homes — that they eat well and are well clothed? Should some desperate Jewish fanatic spout heresy in the face of evidence so conclusive? It just was not done. So he worried along as best he could on a small salary. Finally one day he simply could n’t drag himself around. He was sick. His illness progressed, and he died while colleagues talked of voting him a Nobel prize, which never reached him. And his picture hangs on the rather forlorn wall of a rather forlorn house — all in uniform, with a sword near by! For he worked under military orders to the last, but was not sufficiently important to leave his widow an adequate pension.

It is a strange thing, this business of discovering new knowledge. We Americans give large lip service to pure science. We toss up our hats to an Einstein, knowing not what we do, while he meantime wonders at the ape antics of these emotional Americans. But we make it very difficult for our scientists to pursue their tasks. If they find out that hungry people should be fed moderately expensive foods, we begin to think them a little ‘balmy.’ Of course, if later they are fortunate enough, as Goldberger was, to discover that the poor may be fed a cheap food like yeast to prevent their pellagra, that is not so bad. But even then it is bad business to get excited about such matters, and to have the fact blazoned in the newspapers that thousands are ill and starving in a land of plenty. It is not just the sort of thing that should be done — especially by a Jewish scientist who failed to take a Bachelor of Science degree, much less become a Doctor of Philosophy. And one wonders ultimately whether it might not be wise for such men of genius to adopt just sufficient of the shrewd technique of the money-minded men to enable them to profit well and serve the public more widely. Yet it is silly even to mention this, because men like Goldberger cannot do that sort of thing. It is their misfortune to be gentlemen in an age that capitalizes acquisitiveness and rewards louts for their depravity.