The Memoirs Of Frederick T. Gates
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
But I determined at length that I would find out what really lay in the minds of doctors in active practice. I would read the textbooks they studied. I found out that Osier’s Principles and Practices of Medicine was a textbook then taught in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. The book came into my hands at a fortunate moment. I spent a considerable part of the months of July and August following, with my family, in the Catskill Highlands, at Lake Liberty, in Sullivan County, New York, where I had leisure to give my undivided attention to Osier’s book.
I read the whole book without skipping any of it. I had been a sceptic before, as we have seen, regarding the value of medicine as currently practiced. This book confirmed my scepticism. For I found that the best medical practice did not, at that time, pretend to cure more than four or five diseases. It was nature, and in most instances nature unassisted, and not the doctor that cured disease.
Osler’s chapter on any particular disease would begin with the definition of the disease, and its extension throughout the world, the history of discovery about it, the revelations of innumerable post-mortems, the symptoms, cause and probable results of the disease, and the permanent complications and consequences likely to follow; but when he came to the vital point, namely, the treatment of the aforesaid disease, our author would almost invariably lapse into a mental attitude of doubt, scepticism, and hesitation. He would suggest that so and so had found this or that treatment to be efficacious but such had not been his own experience, but perhaps this or that might be found to be useful in some cases. To a layman like me, demanding cures, he had no word of comfort whatever.
Pasteur had indeed already established his germ theory, but I learned from Osier that few germs had as yet been identified and isolated. I made a list, and it was a very long one at that time—much longer that it is now —of the germs which we might reasonably hope to discover, but which as yet had never been identified with certainty, and I made a very much longer list of the infectious and contagious diseases for which no specific had been found.
When I laid down this book I had begun to realize how woefully neglected had been the scientific study of medicine in the United States.
Why this was so seemed clear. While other departments of science, such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, geology, etc., had been endowed very generously in colleges and universities, medicine, owing to the commercial organization of medical colleges, had rarely been endowed, and research had been left to shift for itself, dependent altogether on such chance time as a rare spirit, without facilities, might steal from his practice.
It became clear to me that medicine could hardly hope to become a science until medicine was endowed, and qualified men were enabled to give themselves to uninterrupted study and investigation, on ample salary, entirely independent of practice. To this end, it seemed to me an institute of medical research ought to be established in the United States. And here was an opportunity for Mr. Rockefeller to do an immense service to his country and perhaps the world.
This idea took possession of me. The more I thought of it the more interested I became. I knew nothing of the cost of research; I did not realize its enormous difficulty, the only thing I saw was the overwhelming need and infinite promise, world-wide, universal, eternal. Filled with these thoughts and enthusiasms, I returned from my vacation on July 24, 1897.
I brought my Osier into the office at 26 Broadway, and there I dictated for Mr. Rockefeller’s eye a memorandum. It enumerated the infectious diseases and pointed out how few of the germs had yet been discovered and how great the field of discovery, how few specifics had yet been found and how appalling was the unremedied suffering. It pointed to the usefulness of the Koch Institut in Berlin and the success of the Pasteur Institut in Paris. Pasteur’s inquiries on anthrax and on the diseases of fermentation had saved for the French nation a sum far in excess of the entire cost of the Franco-German War.
Even if the proposed institute should fail to discover anything, the mere fact that he, Mr. Rockefeller, had established such an institute of research, if he were content to do so, would result in other institutes of a similar kind, or at least other funds for research being established, until research in this country would be conducted on a great scale and out of the multitudes of workers we might be sure in the end of abundant rewards, even though those rewards did not come directly from the institute which he might found.
Being preoccupied with other things, I introduced to Mr. Rockefeller a legal friend of mine, Mr. Starr J. Murphy, of Montclair, as qualified, though personally unacquainted with medicine, to make extensive inquiries of medical men in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston respecting the feasibility of the proposed institute. The conclusions of the medical men were disappointing. Instead of the institute I advocated they suggested that Mr. Rockefeller give a small sum, I think it was $20,000 per year for ten years, to selected individual laboratory workers in various parts of the country. The plan proved utterly futile.