An American Doctor's Odyssey

by Victor Heiser, M.D.
[Norton, $3.50]
WHEN the history of the literature of the twentieth century is written, attention will be directed to the popular interest in science and in particular to the biographies of doctors which became ‘best sellers.’ Doctors’ lives provide plenty of adventure of a kind, and no chronicle yet published tells of more adventures and accomplishments than those in An American Doctor’s Odyssey. Victor Heiser begins with his remarkable escape from the first Johnstown flood. As a boy he rode this out on the top of a rolling barn. The flood left, him homeless and practically destitute, with no resources other than his preparation for college.
He early saw that his interest in medicine was not in the retail end (as he calls practice), but in the wholesale end (public health). Almost the only approach to this latter field at the time was in the old United States Marine Hospital Service, the predecessor of the present Public Health Service. Having proved his fitness by passing a very stiff competitive examination, Heiser spent several years combating the flood of diseased and otherwise Undesirable immigrants. He was then lent to the Philippines as Chief Quarantine Officer under the Medical Board. Shortly afterward he became head of the department of health in the civil government under Taft. Taft and his successors surrounded themselves with a remarkable group of young men who brought civilization and organized government to the people of the Islands in the space of a decade. Without Heiser it is doubtful if the other departments could have functioned. How he conquered one scourge after another to make the Islands the healthiest tropical land on earth is exciting reading.
When, in 1912, President Wilson turned the administration of the Islands over to the native politicians, Heiser went to work for the new International Health Board. This foundation, endowed by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., has spread its measure of good health through all the medically backward parts of the world, including the United States. The wise policy of the Board was to prepare a test demonstrating each new project to a small unit of the population. Once this had succeeded in convincing the people and the bureaucrats, financial and administrative aid was maintained until the project had extended throughout the health service. Then the wrork was turned over to the service and the subsidy stopped. Heiser’s great contribution lay in finding out the need for each innovation and in carrying out the exceedingly difficult diplomatic negotiations that paved the way to eventual success.
The book follows the rough outline of Heiser’s career, taking form from notes that are occasionally so fragmentary that they should either have been left out or amplified. The continuity is interrupted by chapters that give the historical background of the most important diseases investigated, together with the local political, psychological, and social factors in the immediate situation. These chapters are actually the best in the book, each a well-knit article written in such terms as can be easily understood by the layman and yet presenting scientific matters in a scientific and thoroughly illuminating manner.
This autobiography should be of great interest to anybody who enjoys adventure and the achievements of medical science. It will be read with distress by all antivaccinationists and many Christian Scientists. It should be very stimulating to anyone working in the field of public health. It should be required reading for all politicians and administrators who have any doubts as to the wisdom of generous appropriations for good public-health departments and as to the supreme importance of keeping these departments free from the contaminating influence of political spoilsmen.