Scott Graber

My old man really loved Smallpox


It is Wednesday, and I’m at the Cafe du Monde, just off Jackson Square, and have my cafe’ au lait ($5.43) and three beignets ($3.40). I have music — a trombone, trumpet and French horn — and a view of Andrew Jackson, who forever rides his horse celebrating his victory over the British.

New Orleans is in the process of re-evaluating its statues and Robert E Lee and the former Chief Justice of its Supreme Court have been removed from view. In the case of the Judge, he ruled against Homer Plessy (who was one-eighth Black) and legitimized the “Separate But Equal” doctrine. But so far this re-evaluation has not extended to Andrew Jackson and his slave-owning history.

This morning my thoughts are focused on a forthcoming drive up the Natchez Trace through Mississippi and into Tennessee. The planning for this trip has been minimal, mostly an internet search looking for hotels and places where we can eat. This is not the kind of planning my family did when I was a child.

That planning involved a serious study of Good Gulf Maps; finding military bases along the route where we could stay in the Transient Officer’s Quarters; and hoping our ancient Buick had another 2,000 miles left in its transmission.

In those days it was my job was to navigate — telling my father when and where to turn. This was not easy in the 1950s when there were no interstate highways and, importantly, when one had to work their way through cities like Cincinnati, Mobile and Indianapolis without any satellite-connected assistance.

My father always had a 500- or 600-mile goal including $5 a night transient bedroom at Ft. Leonard Wood or Luke Air Force Base. This goal meant a pre-dawn departure and usually an ETA sometime after eight o’clock at night. These night-time drives were magical times for me because I was usually in the front seat, my mother and siblings sleeping in the back. I would, in most cases, have my father entirely to myself.

These trips often involved my father’s transfer from one military hospital to another; or an Easter vacation at Big Bend National Park; or our annual July cross country drive to South Carolina (or Ohio) where my grandparents lived.

It was on these long trips, with me trying to navigate downtown St. Louis in the darkness with a flashlight and a map, that he would tell me whatever was bouncing around his fertile brain. For years that interest centered on Tuberculosis, Typhus and Bubonic Plague.

But my father was also fascinated with history and he told me about the outbreak of Typhus in 1529 causing Luther and Zwingli to break off their discussion about of the nature of the Eucharist. He told me about France’s retreat from Naples in 1526 after this same disease thinned out it’s ranks. And about Walter Reed, Yellow Fever and the digging of the Panama Canal. But his real interest was Smallpox.

Smallpox was brought to the New World by explorers from Spain, Britain and France. When native Americans were exposed, Smallpox was a remarkably efficient killer effectively hollowing-out the interior of the United States for settlement. By 1721, however, British surgeons figured out that injecting pus (into a shallow wound) from a smallpox pustule was a way to ward off death. And yes, a few folks died, but many only developed mild symptoms.

The French did not like these odds, but the British and the Spaniards embraced the primitive, apparently effective vaccination. In 1798 Spain would send its doctors, with instructions, to the New World to show local doctors and missionaries how to administer Edward Jenner’s newer technique.

My father would often deliver his story in the form of a man who was otherwise undistinguished and then, for reasons that had to more to do with chance than skill, found himself working in a cluttered, unheated laboratory somewhere in Berlin or Paris. In the course of his work — and sometimes her work — he would do something trivial, sometimes accidental, then see unexpected results. In that moment he or she would make a connection between the accident and what was happening in a petri dish.

In 1998 I was at my father’s funeral when several of his former medical students came up to me saying, 

“Your father could really tell a story. He could make Anthrax and even Tuberculosis fascinating. But your old man really loved Smallpox. He was a natural born teacher.”

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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