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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

"Meat Ball" music, selfless Dr. Rock, gays and the military

July-August 2009

English 10’s Virtues

I was sorry to read that a survey of English literature will no longer be required of Harvard English concentrators (“Humanities Rebooted,” May-June, page 52). It’s said that students don’t like surveys. I would have thought that a student who spends a year reading the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, and Woolf with anything less than exhilaration would owe at least one crucial discovery to the course: that she’s not, in fact, very interested in literature after all, whatever she might have thought beforehand.

There’s a big and questionable leap from the unobjectionable statement that chronology doesn’t offer the only way to approach literature, to the idea that a chronological survey doesn’t provide students with an irreplaceable orientation as they take up literary studies. No doubt physicians, of a kind, could be produced even if the traditional first-year course in gross anatomy were dropped owing to the boredom of professors or the distaste of students. But generations of doctors, like generations of scholars and readers, will testify that nothing brought them face to face with the nature of their enterprise more than that initial, sometimes bewildering immersion in the stuff of their vocation.

I offer the analogy with some apprehension that by comparing poems to cadavers I’m revealing a deadly, “academic” attitude towards literature, and that I might get Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” quoted at me in a tone of reproof: “We murder to dissect” (a gem I and thousands of others picked up in English 10). But given the new look of the concentration, that’s a kind of apprehension I won’t need to have much longer, at least when talking to Harvard students.

Thomas Peyser ’84
Professor of English, Randolph-Macon College
Ashland, Va.

Seeger’s Sanctuary

In introducing the excerpt from the new Pete Seeger biography (“The Bible and the Almanac,” May-June, page 18), you describe how Seeger was blacklisted from performing in the 1950s because of his Left affiliations. One of the first to break that blacklist was the Harvard Society for Minority Rights, which sponsored “A Concert of Folk Songs by Pete Seeger” on April 24, 1955, in New Lecture Hall.

Charles Gross ’57
Professor of psychology, Princeton, and

Emile Chi ’57, G ’60, Jim Perlstein ’57, and Michael Tanzer ’57, Ph.D. ’62
Former members,
Harvard Society for Minority Rights

 


 

Hard-Times Tune

Many thanks for the article on George Martin Lane, professor of Latin at Harvard in the later nineteenth century (“Song for Hard Times,” The College Pump, May-June, page 64). You ask, “Who knew that ‘One Meat Ball’ got its start at Harvard?” but Lane and his connection with the song were written up as long ago as 1997 in Nota Bene, the newsletter of Harvard’s department of the classics (Fall/Winter 1997, page 9, on line at www.fas.harvard.edu/~classics/newsletter/index.html).

One might have hoped to see mention of the George Martin Lane Chair in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It was given by Lane’s daughter-in-law, born Emma Gildersleeve, and his granddaughter, Katherine Lane Weems, a sculptor whose works include the two life-size bronze rhinos outside the Biological Laboratories. 

Christopher P. Jones, Ph.D. ’65
George Martin Lane Professor of 
Classics and History
Cambridge

 

Editor’s note: That 1997 write-up reveals, in part, that Lane “published some works in the Classics, including a volume on Latin Pronunciation (1871), but his most famous production was a ‘ballad,’ ‘The Lay of the One Fishball’ [a text is given alongside]. …The words seem so similar to a popular song of the 1940s, ‘One Meat Ball,’ that a comparison of the two texts, conducted with the proper scholarship, might produce interesting results.”

 

I read with fascination the tribute to the old song, “One Fish Ball.” I had no idea there was a Harvard connection.

This was the only song that my rather unmusical father, John Drysdale, was ever known to sing. He graduated from Brown in 1928 and began graduate studies at Harvard before the Depression sent him back to selling men’s clothing in North Adams, Massachusetts. Could the song possibly still have been current at Harvard in 1929?

The words he taught me were considerably more grim than the words in the College Pump. In my father’s version (probably closer to the original) the “wretched man” of the song ends up this way:

He grabbed a pistol from the wall
and shot himself ’til he was dead.

If anyone is interested in the old words, they can e-mail me at [email protected].

M.D. Drysdale ’66
Editor and Publisher, The Herald of Randolph
Randolph, Vt.

 

Dr. Rock’s Selfless Science

I viewed your coverage of the John C. Rock papers with great personal interest (“A Pioneer in Family Planning,” May-June, page 54).

During my fourth year in medical school, in the fall of 1962, I managed to wangle an elective with the illustrious Dr. Rock at the highly unpretentious Rock Reproductive Center in Brookline. As a hopeful future obstetrician-gynecologist, I would be working with a man fresh from his triumphant and key role in the development of The Pill.

Rock felt that males could and should play a larger and more active role in fertility control. From his experience in treating infertility, he was aware of studies indicating that under certain conditions, such as undescended testicles, varicoceles, etc., an elevated intrascrotal temperature would result in reduced sperm count and declining male fertility.

Together, we devised an experiment to heat the testicles within the scrotum to a predetermined value. We set arbitrary lengths of times and intervals of heating to develop a therapeutic model. We needed a method that was safe and tolerable (in accordance with the Hippocratic code of “First, do no harm”), a schedule of heating times, and a group of males who would volunteer for the ordeal and also be willing to undergo pre- and then post-study sperm analysis. Using a baby bottle warmer, the design of the study was to immerse the subject’s testicles, starting at a tolerable temperature and then, over the course of 15 to 20 minutes, turn the dial up to the desired 105 degrees, a level more arbitrarily than scientifically decided upon by Rock and me.

As I was still a potential father-to-be, Rock, the only other co-conspirator, unhesitatingly volunteered to be the test subject. He was 72 at the time, with a history of several heart attacks, and he had satisfied his childbearing yearnings.

So this dignified man of patrician bearing and national celebrity shed his trademark ascot, his well-tailored trousers, and his boxers and climbed into an empty bathtub. He carefully submerged his scrotum into the bottle warmer, a device that could just comfortably accommodate the package he was delivering. I then slowly increased the temperature to the designated target level. We determined that mankind, in this instance represented by a not-too-nimble 72-year-old cardiac patient, could tolerate this physical insult.

Several months later, after appropriate trials, we concluded that the procedure could work! Encouraged and guided by Rock, I wrote and submitted the results in a medical paper with both our names as authors. By the time it was reviewed, critiqued, and returned for revision, I had become an intern with absolutely no time for personal projects. The manuscript lay ignored, unpublished, and ultimately lost in one of our many family moves. It was, however, referenced in several other papers by Rock et al. during the next few years, with the designation “to be published” in the bibliography. 

Dr. Rock has been gone now for 25 years (he survived this experiment by more than 20 years), so I am the only one with first-hand knowledge of this clinical “caper.” I tell the story to give further illustration of this great man’s dedication, his humanity, his humility and selflessness, his ever-present intellectual curiosity in the pursuit of benefit for mankind, and, yes, his great sense of humor. 

Kenneth Scheer ’59
Brookline, Mass. 

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

I read with interest your piece about U.S. Army Captain Anthony Woods, M.P.P. ’08, being discharged from the military under the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after publicly acknowledging his homosexuality (“Anthony Woods: Taking a Stand,” January-February, page 74).

In a subsequent letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, I vigorously objected to Captain Woods’s dismissal and argued for the reversal of a wrongheaded policy that has deprived the American people of the military service of tens of thousands of similarly talented individuals.

As I’ve noted in the past, the military has long served as a pathway to full participation in American life and as an emblem of full rights of citizenship. It is no accident that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation guaranteed both freedom and the right to military service. As women claimed full rights of citizenship in the twentieth century, full inclusion in the military became an important badge of their equality.

It is time for the United States to give the same ratification of full citizenship to gays and lesbians. Anthony Woods’s discharge from the Army is a tragedy for him, but it is a larger tragedy for the nation that is deprived of his remarkable abilities and that fails to live up to its most precious ideals.

Drew Faust 
President, Harvard University
Cambridge

 

Editor’s note: Captain Woods was honorably discharged, but he was required to repay his $35,000 military scholarship to the Kennedy School. Faust’s remarks at the 2008 ROTC commissioning ceremony are online at http://president.harvard.edu/ speeches/faust/090603_rotc.php; for Harvard Magazine's coverage of this year’s ceremony, see “Leadership Tips from A ‘Soldier Scholar’,” “A Worldly Week,”  “Commencement Confetti”.

 

Errata and Amplifications

Concerning Anne Firor Scott’s Vita of Caroline Farrar Ware (May-June, page 38), Detlev F. Vagts ’49, LL.B. ’51, of Cambridge, cautioned “against a frequently encountered typo: re-naming Adolf Berle ‘Adolph.’ It is not necessary thus to distinguish him from Adolf Hitler.” Elliott Sirkin, ART ’91, also of Cambridge, praised Adam Kirsch’s essay on James Agee (“Vistas of Perfection,” May-June, page 28), but noted that although Agee may have seen “a favorite movie, Coquette,…seven nights in a row,” it did not star Helen Hayes. She played the heroine on stage; Mary Pickford starred in the movie, winning an Oscar. (And “Anon.” phoned to say that Michael Kearney, not Thomas Chalmers, appears with Robert Preston in the movie still from All the Way Home.) Charles F. Stromeyer IV of Concord, Massachusetts, observed that Courtney Humphries emphasizes “neurons as the fundamental unit of the brain” (“Untangling the Brain,” May-June, page 40), but slights recent research on astrocytes, large glial cells that hold nerve cells in place and help them develop and function.