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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fortuitous Coincidences


Update August 13, 2016: Some details in the below account are in need of correction. Please see this post.

Update: Added the interesting and somewhat disturbing footnotes 4, 5 and 6.

The author’s grandfather FPreviously mentioned here. spent a semester in the early 1930s as a visiting professor at the University of Berlin. There he made two acquaintances that the author must consider fortuitous for he most likely owes his existence to their combination. One of them was I, a clever and pretty post-doc of Junker blood, who in due course became his grandmother. The other was a medical researcher named Gerhard Domagk.

F eventually returned to Sweden with I. In 1935, I gave birth to A, the author’s mother.Previously mentioned here. In 1937, when A was two years old, she fell deadly ill with a bacterial infection. When the best efforts of current medicine failed to cure her, F telegraphed his friend Domagk. For Domagk was said to be working on a wonder drug to combat bacterial infection, today known as Sulfa-class antibiotics. Domagk couriered a sample from Berlin to F in Stockholm and A promptly recovered.

In 1939, the Nobel Prize Committee in Physiology or Medicine awarded Domagk the Prize. While Domagk surely deserved the Prize, one cannot help but wonder if the fact that F was a member, vice-chairman, and eventually chairman of many years, of the Committee and that Domagk had saved F’s baby daughter’s life may have accelerated the process.

The problem was that since 1935, when the anti-Nazi journalist Carl von Ossietzky has won the Nobel Peace Prize,That was before that Committee started requiring a substantial number of documented murders to prove eligibility. the Nazi regime barred Germans from accepting the Prize. F wrote to Reichstag President Hermann Göring to plead for an exception for Domagk, as this Prize was entirely non-political and would honor a great German.That F would write such a letter should not be read to imply that he sympathized with the Nazi’s cause. To the contrary, F was part of a centuries-long family tradition of conspicuous semitophilia in word and deed.It was this reputation, in combination with a familial fondness for certain Biblical names, which lead the Swedish antisemite Elof Eriksson to erroneouslyF could trace his ancestry extensively, in some lines even to Gothic chieftains or priests at the time of the Fall of Rome. Yet, no Jewish person can be identified in this ancestry; not that this would have been something to be ashamed of. However, some of F’s other children married Jews and, as a consequence, the author today does have Jewish cousins. include the family among those thoroughly jewed up in his tract Semi-Gotha; Judarnas invasion: från Ghetton till Riddarhuset; En studie i förjudningen av det ledande svenska överskiktet (1939-41) (Semi-Gotha; The Jewish Invasion from the Ghetto to the Mansion; A study in the judification of the leading Swedish upper class). Remarkably this tract, which otherwise would surely have been forgotten by now, obtained new life thanks to digitization and publicity efforts of modern Swedish Muslim antisemites. F helped several German Jewish doctors who escaped the Nazis to Sweden obtain jobs and faculty positions and, when he gradually gave up his various professional hats, he made sure that they would pass to some of these doctors. Göring, ever the gentleman, never responded, but instead ordered the Gestapo to arrest Domagk.

Fortunately, Domagk’s camp was not one of the murder factories, but rather a camp designed to put the fear of Hitler into prominent Germans who had displeased the Nazi leadership. On his first night in the camp, Domagk was visited by the camp’s commandant who inquired what Domagk was in here for. Domagk—a clever, but not always terribly politic, man—responded truthfully For winning the Nobel Prize. At this the commandant turned to his adjutant, made the spinning finger next to the temple gesture, and marched out. This was not an entirely unreasonable reaction for some inmates of the camp were indeed there due to mental illness. Happily, Domagk—adequately chastised—was released about a week later, survived the war, collected the Prize money,In that regard, Domagk was more fortunate than Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, after ostentatiously declining the Literature Prize in 1964, wrote the committee inquiring whether they could just quietly send him the money. Sadly, the committee declined. and eventually had his family intermarry with the F’s.

F was a rather remarkable man in many ways.

F practiced pathology for more than 70 years, eventually becoming Chief of Pathology at the Karolinska Institutet, during which he performed more than 15,000 autopsies with his own hands. He would sometimes remark that in not a single one of these autopsies had he identified old age as the cause of death. Indeed, old age did not seem to trouble F much and he lived until shortly after publishing his last book on his 96th birthday. He had been involved with the Nobel Prize from its first award, when F served as a student usher, to its last award of F’s life.This is in sharp contrast to F’s father, S, who never had any relationship to the Nobel Prize. For reasons that can only be understood through knowledge of the political relations between a handful of Swedish families prominent in science, S, like Gösta Mittag-Leffler, was permanently on the outs with the Nobel clique. Even a century later, I would explain why this or that prominent figure had said such uncomplimentary things about that other figure by reference to some dispute their great-grandfathers had had.

F had an unusual gift for tongues.In that regard he resembled his uncle W, of whom and his adventures in the United States perhaps more in another post. While most members of the family are fluent in only three or four,For the author even achieving that much was a struggle, as the broken English—his third or fourth language—in these pages attests. F was fluent in about thirty languages, including most modern European languages and a good selection of ancient ones. When F was 92, he was invited to give a series of lectures at the major Brazilian schools of medicine. The organizers, of course, offered to provide translators for all the speeches and subsequent question-and-answer sessions. F would have none of that. Upon discovering that Portuguese was not among the languages he was fluent in, he taught himself sufficiently much of that language in a few weeks to bring off that endeavor without the aid of translators.He must have made quite a physical impression in Brazil for F was ancient and, even by Swedish standards, very tall (about six foot six or seven), skeletally thin and, thanks to spending the daylight hours in the basement autopsy laboratories, deadly pale. Moreover, he never in his life wore any color except white, gray, or black. (When questioned on this curious habit, he would inform the questioner that he was, after all, by profession a pathologist and not a circus clown.) Many in Brazil must have wondered if this apparition was a pathologist or his patient, somehow escaped from autopsy.

F was the first person in Sweden to survive a broken neck. One day while cycling from his home to his hospital office, he was struck by a taxi. The resulting fall broke his second vertebrae. F, thanks to his medical training, realized that should he lose consciousness and the muscles in his neck relax, this would mean his death. So instead he got into the taxi and ordered the driver to complete F’s journey. At the hospital, the doctors—F’s colleagues and mostly his former students—stabilized F’s condition. One of them ran across an experimental procedure to treat these sorts of injuries investigated by an American doctor. This procedure, involving the surgical insertion of metal rods into the damaged vertebra to stabilize it, worked for F and he made an almost-complete recovery. From then on, he would joke that he could only say yes (i.e., nod using the undamaged third vertebra), but no longer say no (i.e., shake his head which would have required use of the immobilized second vertebra).

F’s sense of humor was of the type one would expect of an eminent pathologist, bone-dry. A standard stanza about him in the medical students’ musical revues began And then there is F, laughing coldly amongst the corpses. When meeting a new person, F would test them by engaging in a discourse which hilariously mispronounced and misused terms and invented absurd etymologies. If the person, rather than nodding seriously (as many young doctors would be inclined to do in the presence of such a senior, but clearly senile, figure), would laugh or, even better, play along, F would mark them as somebody possibly worth getting to know better.

The author recently discovered in his possession a series of portraits of F drawn by the famous Norwegian painter Erik Werenskiold. The first of these was drawn in 1887, when F was six years old and Werenskiold was still unknown. The series extends to the 1930s when Werenskiold’s death ended it.

F, while comfortable from his familyF’s first wife was probably the richest heiress in Sweden. and profession, was a notorious penny-pincher. So when, as he would annually, take his household from his substantial mansion in Stockholm to his nearby summer island (part of the dowry I’s parents had bestowed on F), he would insist that he, family, and staff take the bus. Not only that, he would insist that everybody get off the bus a stop early and carry heavy luggage for an extra kilometer, to avoid crossing a line that would have slightly increased the bus fares.

The author’s middle names match F’s first and last name and were chosen in his honor.This makes searching the author’s archives for information on F annoyingly difficult. F died when the author was seven years old. The author’s principal memories of F are playing chess and brede, a Swedish variant of backgammon, against F who never allowed the author to win. A 1969 film about F, described as a grand old man of Swedish medicine and one of the world’s most famous pathologists, and featuring interviews with him can be seen here if one is in Sweden.Those outside may have to avail themselves of an appropriate VPN.