Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Milton J. Slocum Manhattan Country Doctor (1986)

Milton J. Slocum Manhattan Country Doctor (1986)

This is a memoir by Milton J. Slocum, who practiced medicine in Hells Kitchen, New York City, from 1934 to 1968. He then moved to Santa Monica, California, to be my family physician. Well, okay, he moved there to be close to his grandkids, but I was fortunate to have Dr. Slocum as my doctor from about junior high until I moved to northern California in 1982.

This book reminds me much of Dr. Slocum--who I would assume, since he was born in 1905, has since passed. He was a calm, gentle, affable guy who was never harsh, but still managed to convey how he felt about things without making you feel looked down upon. It's a series of vignettes of life in New York City (and Vienna) at the time--and some of them are quite surprising, even to me.

I knew that he started practicing medicine at a time when there were few drugs that actually did anything. He reminds you, several times, that when he started practicing medicine, not only were there no antibiotics (which Dr. Slocum regarded, rightly, as one of the most wondrous inventions that mankind has ever created), but even sulfa drugs were introduced after he started his practice. Imagine trying to treat infections when the best that you could hope for was that the patient's own immune system would win the battle.

After completing medical school, and while waiting to find out if he had passed his board exams, Dr. Slocum and his wife went to Vienna for a few months. The Depression was on; Vienna was a relatively cheap place to live; and some of the world's most renowned doctors were teaching there. But the visit was short--only four weeks--because the emerging Austrian Nazi Party was beginning to throw its weight around, attacking Jewish doctors at the medical schools, and starting a campaign of encouraging businesses to refuse "Jewish business." Dr. Slocum and his wife Belle, being Jewish, found this increasingly disturbing, and returned home, just in time to start his residency.

Much of the book gives a slice of New York City life that seems positively civilized compared to today--even though where Dr. Slocum lived was a seedy part of town. The landlord persuaded the residents of a street level apartment to move upstairs so that Dr. Slocum could operate a combination residence and medical office at street level--and the residents were more than happy to do so, since it made them a bit safer. It was a brothel.

Dr. Slocum's patients included a collection of people that sounds like they walked out of Damon Runyon's stories. The madam upstairs, for example, worked for Lucky Luciano, who Dr. Slocum actually saw once--and who Dr. Slocum upset because he wasn't willing to let his offices be used as part of Luciano's prostitution operations. Fortunately, Luciano's legal problems arrived just in time to prevent Dr. Slocum from having to deal with Luciano's wrath.

There are a lot of stories here, some of medical successes, some of medical tragedies--and throughout, I find myself remembering this wonderfully sweet man. He is careful not to throw in medical terminology without explaining it. I was also surprised to find that Dr. Slocum, in his earlier days, was a neurosurgeon.

There is considerable mention of his first daughter, Susan Hope Slocum--but no mention of what became of her. Dr. Slocum once, while talking about the tremendous change that penicillin had made in the practice of medicine, told me that he had lost a daughter to a minor ear infection. "These days, we would have put her on penicillin for a few days and she would have been up and about." Perhaps he didn't want to add such a shadow to an otherwise upbeat book.

If you want to know a bit about how medicine was practiced back then, or how life was lived in New York City--you might want to read this book.

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