Monday, August 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum M.D. by Archibald Malloch

 I just finished a beautiful old book, published in 1937, called Short Years: The Life and Letters of John Bruce MacCallum, M.D. by Archibald Malloch.

MacCallum was a turn-of-the-twentieth century, Canadian-born, Johns Hopkins-trained physician/scientist who devoted his short life to experimental medicine. He started out as a morphologist, most known for his work on heart muscle, and ended up an experimental physiologist. He was also a poet, an author of short stories, and a prodigious letter writer.

The book is primarily a chronological collection of edited letters. The author (Malloch) annotates them so that the story flows well but he very effectively keeps himself out of it as much as possible to let MacCallum be the one to breathe life into his own story. The writing is achingly beautiful, full of dreams, aspirations, love of research, love of friends, loneliness, and also humor, imagination, and optimism. I found myself reading passages out loud to my husband because they were just so striking. 

What gives this book particular depth and poignancy is that the young physician/scientist contracted tuberculosis while a medical student. Although in earlier letters the dreaded diagnosis is only hinted at, he worked in a place where the symptoms were very readily recognized, tuberculosis was rampant in American society, and his older brother was also a physician. John MacCallum undoubtedly knew his diagnosis and prognosis from the very first. 

He devoted himself to work, accomplishing an extraordinary amount in his short years, despite his physical limitations. He made friends wherever he went, and his death was hard felt by a large community of medical and non-medical people from Canada to Baltimore to Berkeley. 

He also had two romantic friendships with women with whom he corresponded for many years. It’s unclear how the relationships might have progressed had he been healthy, but it does seem that his illness put up a wall against marriage, even if he had been inclined to pursue it. The book has a very early-twentieth-century way of preserving the anonymity of these women, referring to one as “Miriam,” which was not her real name, and the other as “the poetess.” It’s frustrating not to be able to identify who they were and it seems time erased the trails. And yet, their identities don’t really matter.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how MacCallum will write to a friend, to his parents, to his mentor, and to his brother letters covering the same event, written within a couple of days, and put different spins on it for each audience. He might use the same turn of phrase a couple of times, but then elaborate on or play down his thoughts on what he’d done or what took place. It gives a more rounded picture of the man and really humanizes him.

I love epistolary novels, and this book reads like one. It makes me wish people still wrote like this. Instantaneous communication is wonderful, but what a loss for the literary world and for future historians to think that people’s voices won’t be preserved in this way for posterity.

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