[percy-l] a book that would have interested Walker Percy

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Tue Aug 28 05:55:04 EDT 2007

Shades of Doctor Faustus...

This is a book that would have interested Walker Percy.


* * *

New York Times / www.nytimes.com / August 28, 2007

Collaborators in a Quest for Human Perfection

By Abigail Zuger, M.D.

* * *
The Immortalists
Charles Lindhbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel
and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever
By David M. Friedman
338 Pages. Ecco. $26.95
* * *

Within a building secluded behind iron gates, in a laboratory painted
black, two men in black masks and long hooded black robes stand
over an operating table. One is tall and one is short, and of course
they are trying to create life — any fan of horror movies knows that.
But this is no movie: it is quite true, a little-known piece of early-
20th-century medical history that segues seamlessly into the living
horror of World War II.

The tall man was Charles A. Lindbergh, the aviator, and the short
man was Dr. Alexis Carrel, at one time probably the most famous
physician in the world. A French surgeon transplanted to New York's
prestigious Rockefeller Institute, Carrel won a 1912 Nobel Prize for
devising surgical techniques to cut and connect blood vessels. He
performed the first primitive coronary artery bypass surgery on a dog
in 1910, and his tissue culture experiments in the 1920s and 1930s
paved the way for today's tissue grafts and organ transplants.

Lindbergh, a mechanical wizard casting around for a worthwhile
project after his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, came up with some ideas
for fixing his sister-in-law's damaged heart valves, and was given an
introduction to Carrel. The heart valve ideas proved impractical, but
the two clicked instantly.

Scientifically they were a good match: one with sophisticated medical
ambitions and the other with the engineering skills to make them
happen. They were also philosophic soul mates, both interested in
eugenics and the perfection of the species. In fact, one of Carrel's
long-lived experiments at the Rockefeller Institute consisted of a large
colony of mice bred specifically to create "heroic" supermice --
large, fit and savage.

David M. Friedman, a veteran journalist, has ably extracted the story
of Lindbergh and Carrel's scientific collaboration from existing
biographies and new interviews with a few aging eyewitnesses. All
told, the two worked together for less than a decade but, amazingly,
their story has repercussions that linger today, both for good and for

The duo's scientific triumph came in 1935, after a few false starts and
much impassioned conversation about the betterment of mankind.
Bent over that black operating table (Carrel thought that an all-black
environment made cleanliness easier to maintain) the surgeon
removed a cat's thyroid gland and Lindbergh attached the gland to a
pump he had designed. It was the first pump that could perfuse a large
mammalian organ with nutrients and oxygen while reliably
forestalling infection. The organ could actually be stored on a shelf,
ready for future use.

And that thyroid gland was more than just preserved: still dutifully
producing thyroid hormone, it seemed eerily alive. It lasted only a few
weeks, but it was soon replaced by a row of other pump-maintained
organs, including a cat's ovary that continued to ovulate on the pump.
Small wonder the newspapers of the time went wild: "One Step
Nearer to Immortality," one headline read.

The scientific success only fueled Lindbergh and Carrel's philosophic
zeal: if immortality was indeed on the horizon, it certainly should not
be for everyone. In his 1935 best seller "Man, the Unknown," Carrel
urgently argued for the creation of biologic classes, with the weak and
sick at one end, and the strong and fit (long might they live, propagate
and receive new organs as needed) at the other. The sorting was to be
accomplished by a council of scientific experts much like himself.

Lindbergh, meanwhile, suffering through the kidnapping and murder
of his oldest son, and the miserable press orgy that followed, became
less and less inclined to tolerate any part of the common man. Living
in Europe to avoid the paparazzi in the United States, he was soon
vocally admiring the order and precision of Nazi Germany.

Slowly the two men were swept away from the laboratory and into the
caldron of international events, Lindbergh as a frequent visitor and
aviation consultant to Germany, Carrel as self-appointed protector of
the human species. When war broke out in Europe, Lindbergh, back
in the United States, threw his energies into the isolationist America
First movement. Carrel, forced to retire from the Rockefeller Institute,
returned to Paris where, financed by the collaborationist Vichy
government, he actually succeeded in assembling his council of
scientific experts. He died in 1944, at age 71, before he and his
experts could do too much damage.

Lindbergh, of course, lived on into the modern world, long enough
to recreate himself as a conservationist, and to expunge the more
offensive anti-Semitic sentiments from his wartime diaries before

Mr. Friedman's book is difficult to put down -- seldom is the
interface between science, history and morality so clearly highlighted
as by the careers of these two men. His story is so good that it is easy
to forgive him a few failings. He is guilty of some overly portentous
prose of the "could he have known?" variety. The first half of the
book, with its detailed descriptions of various pumps, sorely needs
some diagrams. The epilogue cries out for a meatier update on
modern vascular and transplant surgery, where some of Carrel's
suturing techniques are still in use, although most of his other work
has long been supplanted.

But for a demonstration of the bizarrely particulate nature of human
intelligence, which allows scientific brilliance and moral idiocy to
thrive side by side, forget Jekyll, Hyde and Frankenstein: this is the
book to read.

* * *
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/percy-l/attachments/20070828/d7752860/attachment.html>

More information about the Percy-L mailing list