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This oral history is one in a series of interviews conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office in the late 1980s to early 1990s documenting the history of ASH and the development of the profession of hematology in the United States. Columbia University holds the copyright to this oral history, and anyone interested in quoting this transcript must first contact the University for permission.
ASH provides the following oral history for historical purposes. The opinions expressed by the interviewees are not necessarily those of ASH, nor does ASH endorse or make claim as to the accuracy of any of the information included here. This oral history also is not intended as medical advice; you should always seek advice from a qualified health provider for your individual medical needs.
The following oral history memoir is the result of two tape-recorded interviews with Dr. Eugene Cronkite, conducted by Madeline Marget on February 6 and 7, 1989. Also included is an addendum to the interviews written by Dr. Cronkite. In 1989 Dr. Cronkite reviewed the transcript and made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that the following oral history is a verbatim transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
February 6, 1989
Q: Let's start Dr. Cronkite with talking about your early life and how it may have influenced your choices.
Cronkite: Well I was born in Los Angeles, California. My grandparents were from New England and we were brought up in a proper New England manner. And this required that we go to Sunday school. My brother and I became somewhat suspicious about some of the stories in the Bible, particularly the one of the whale swallowing Jonah. And we had to check in the Encyclopedia Britannica about what kind of food whales had, and we realized that most of the whales have sieves that they just filter out the small plankton and small fish and so on. It would be totally impractical to swallow a human being, but we were told in no uncertain terms that there are many things that one accepts on faith, and I think that was a very early reason to separate ourselves from any formal religious activity.
Later as an undergraduate, I was tremendously impressed by Professor Bennett M. Allen, Professor of Biology at UCLA, who had learned how to dissect out one or two cells in a developing tadpole that would prevent its metamorphosis. In other words the cells that were being taken out were the precursors of the thyroid gland and if the thyroid extract, or dry thyroid glands were given to the animals, they would then metamorphose.
I had, for reasons that are unclear today, decided to study geology and mineralogy and then shifted to chemistry. This was in the middle of the Great Depression. When I learned that the maximum income, at that time, for a graduate in chemistry was in the order of $45-$50 a month, I decided to do something else. My brother, who was already at Stanford University as assistant professor in Anatomy, suggested that I apply to Stanford Medical School. All which I did, and one of those funny things; when being interviewed by the admissions committee, the first individual who interviewed me was a professor of medicine, and he was in his little laboratory with an evaporating dish and sand in it, Bunsen burner under it, stirring something. The only question he asked me, he said, "Mr. Cronkite, what am I doing?" And since I had some mineralogy and geology," I said, "You’re determining the nature of some mineral you picked up." He said, "Oh, fine. We'll admit you to medical school." And I was admitted.
Medical school in those days, was simply, this was in the ‘30s, was simply pre-antibiotic, pre any of the things that we have today for use in medicine. The main thing to do was to diagnose individuals and either they lived by the grace of God, certainly not by anything we could have done by and large. The day that sulfonamide came in and suddenly. people who would ordinarily die from various diseases were living, was one of the most dramatic things that I've ever experienced up to that time or since then: that diseases that normally 80-90% mortality, particularly in the older population, suddenly nearly 100% were surviving. The entire treatment of venereal disease, particularly gonorrhea, completely changed. During this period of time, actually if I recall correctly when I was a junior or senior medical student, a Professor [Arthur Leonard] Bloomfield, the chairman of the Department of Medicine, called me in and asked me if I would like to articulate in a study that he would like to have done, which would be a repetition of what Dr. [William] Castle had done earlier in Boston. And it seemed very interesting to me and he explained it to me. Mainly it was a matter of taking normal gastric juice, incubating it with liver or hamburger, and then administering this to an individual with pernicious anemia. And I was told that as soon as there was a patient with pernicious anemia, I would be notified, that I was to get the hamburger and gastric juice. It occurred to me when it was time to come to do this study, that where was I going to get the gastric juice? I asked permission to see the professor, who was a very formal man.
Q: Do you recall his name, Dr. Cronkite?
Cronkite: Bloomfield. Arthur Leonard Bloomfield, a very famous clinician. I went in to see him and said, "Where do I get the gastric juice?" And he looked at me as if I were the most stupid human being in the world. And he said, "It’s simple. You put a tube down in your stomach and muck it out." Which I thought, goodness gracious, I had never done anything like that before so I asked the resident in medicine, Marcus Krupp, "How do I get the gastric juice?" And he said, "There's no problem on that. I'll put the tube down your stomach for you, but remember to come in fasting." Which I did. And we incubated the hamburger with the gastric juice and then it was administered to a patient with pernicious anemia. And sure enough the same things happened in San Francisco that happened in Boston. It made the professor happy and I think it was one of the reasons he finally selected me as one of the interns in the medical department.
At about this time, the professor became interested in a publication from Johns Hopkins on the effect of extracts of the spleen upon granulocyte counts in the rabbit. Excuse me, of platelet counts in the rabbit. And he asked me if I would like to see if these studies that were done by [C.P.] Rose and somebody else at Hopkins, I've forgotten now. And when the first spleen was taken out from the patient with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, I followed the instructions from the work at Johns Hopkins, made the extracts, injected them into the rabbit, and at about this time I did one of the things that happens to, I guess, almost all young men. I'd fallen in love with a young woman who was actually assistant supervisor of ophthalmic nursing. I was given a small broom closet in which we kept some rabbits, and she would come down with me with her nose going more like the rabbit's nose-- a sort of impossible environment for a surgical nurse, but she put up with it-- and did the platelet count, and that turned out to be the first publication that I have on the effect of platelet extracts, or spleen extracts upon platelet count. And the work from Johns Hopkins was more or less confirmed.
The rest of my training in medicine was actually truncated by World War II. After two years, about a year and a half actually, after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, as a young individual, I felt very uncomfortable not being in uniform and volunteered for the United States Navy. Primarily because, having been in ROTC and CMTC, the Civilian Military Training Corp, I couldn't conceive of going to war with the Army. If you have to go to war, you might as well do it in the Navy where there's good food and white sheets to sleep in.
The time in the Navy was very interesting during World War II. There was never any question about what the necessity of being there, so far as the sick and injured were concerned. But at the same time, several opportunities arose to have certain investigative opportunities. Having had training exclusively in internal medicine with no experience in surgery, the Navy thought I would be a menace if I were assigned to the Marine Corp or Ships Medical Officer. Then they sent me to the Naval Operating Base Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, for training in surgery. I was very fortunate. The Chief of Surgery there was J. Montgomery Deaver, who was one of the professors of surgery from the University of Pennsylvania, Chief of Surgery of the Lankenau Hospital. And the Chief of Medicine was William McCann, professor of medicine from the University of Rochester. So that I was put into what was really, although a Naval Hospital, was an academic atmosphere. I was the only person under training there, and I sort of split my time between medicine and surgery and had really unexcelled opportunity for training of a type that one could really not get, I think, in an academic institution.
Q: Can you tell us Dr. Cronkite what was different about the training from that which you have received in an academic institution?
Cronkite: That is a little bit difficult to define. I think it was primarily because I was the only person at that time under training there. And the professors that were in the Navy, I guess, felt that they had to train somebody. And I was trained literally 24 hours a day, every day, and it was --Plus the fact there was not only the injuries coming in from the Atlantic fleet, ordinary injuries of people in training in the military service. But the thing that gave us an opportunity to do a little bit of research resulted from the sinking of a German submarine off of Norfolk, Virginia. With the damage, they had to surface and the crew was captured. They'd had very serious injuries, burns, all sorts of traumatic injuries. Some of them were burned so severely that there was very little skin available for grafting by the ordinary split technique and sewing graphs in. And it occurred to me, since fibrinogen had become available as a result of the plasma processing that was going on, that if one could take little bits of skin in the denuded areas and stick it on using fibrinogen and thrombin as a glue, that it might be worthwhile. That was done and it did, in fact, work. Unfortunately, what we did not know at that time is that the plasma or products of plasma that came from pooled plasma was contaminated with hepatitis virus which we didn't even know existed at that time. So most of the individuals that were given this also developed hepatitis, which was an unfortunate event.
After that I went to sea aboard the USS Sylvania, that ship right back there, as a medical officer, and did the sort of things that a medical officer does. A few traumatic injuries, every time you go into port, venereal disease, respiratory infections and otherwise, a few days back out at sea again. It was just dull and boring. There was just nothing to do except read and the library aboard ship is not a very exciting thing. Actually, duty on the USS Sylvania followed duty in North Carolina, Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station with the 3rd Marine Air Wing.
At the end of World War II - I left one thing out. My first duty station in the Navy was the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and after indoctrination, which struck me as sort of silly-- we were losing ships every day and medical officers were needed-- a group of us had been sent there to learn how to become proper officers in the Navy. It seemed like a nation losing a war that it was a tremendous waste of time to try to indoctrinate individuals in how you're supposed to behave as a naval officer, and how your wife was supposed to behave and so on. But that's the way it was. The Navy was very slow in adjusting to what the realities were.
I was assigned then to the American Red Cross to develop blood banks, not blood banks but mobile blood transfusion units that traveled around Virginia and Maryland collecting blood for plasma, since at that time the technique for preserving blood had not been developed to the extent that blood could be shipped. At this first duty with the Red Cross, I made acquaintances with Captain Lloyd Newhauser and Eugene Lozner. Lozner had his training in medicine at Harvard and then Boston City Hospital with Dr. Castle and others. He was an assistant to Captain Newhauser in developing the plasma program for the Navy. After this, I had regular duties in one place or another, and lo and behold in the latter part of 1945, the ship that I was on came to Port Hueneme, California and we picked up chains, anchors and buoys. And everybody wondered what in the hell was going on. The Captain of the ship didn't know and went then from Port Hueneme, California to Hawaii. When we left Hawaii, out in the Pacific, these secret orders were opened, and Captain Forbes Bryce with whom I had become good friends, invited me to his cabin, and said we’re taking the buoys, chains and anchors to Bikini to moor the first target ships for the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini.
Cronkite: Yes. Forbes Orville Bryce; a good Irish Bostonian. And went out there, and that was sort of an interesting experience because we were the only ship, the first and only ship to enter the Bikini Lagoon. There were no maps for it and the Captain did not trust the fathometers so he issued an order that nobody understood except, fortunately, one bosnn's mate, "Man the chains” and I wondered what the heck that meant. There are two little platforms off the bridge and a seaman is supposed to get up there and just like on the Mississippi River, throw the lead weights like Mark Twain, so that they actually measured the depth as we went into the lagoon. It has nothing to do with research in medicine but it just popped into my mind.
And then orders came for me to make a medical survey of the Marshallese that were at Bikini. There was somewhat of a language barrier. There was no English spoken but I did make a trivial survey, did blood tests and so on. And then the natives were moved from there.
And about this time, another set of orders came in, "Do not disturb the flora and fauna but clear up the debris that the natives have left." And the Captain told me to do it. I took my hospital corpsmen ashore, knowing nothing about what happens when coconuts are aflame. We decided to burn the latrines and some of the other things down. Until you've seen exploding coconuts-- when they exploded then the fire started to spread. From the ship they could see that something unexpected was happening on Bikini, and our signalman signaled back that we needed help to try to put the fire out because we were supposed to protect everything for reasons that we were not aware of. And fortunately they brought the pumps ashore and fire hoses. It was finally put out. But the captain was wondering whether there'd be a court of inquiry as to the damage that was done. About that time, another ship came in with Sea Bees to put in a camp on Bikini for the personnel and they were sort of pleased at what had been burned down, they didn't have to take care of. So one of those fortuitous things. I then received orders to report immediately to the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. When you're out in the pacific, an area where there are no flying fields and so on, you just can’t report immediately. And it took me about two weeks to get to Bethesda, Maryland.
When I arrived in San Francisco, my wife met me and she said, "Oh, you're going to be the hematologist for Operation crossroad.” I didn't know what Operation Crossroads was. I said, “How in the heck do you know?” She said, “Well, Mrs. Lozner called me and told me." This is what's called in the Navy “the wife line."
When I got to Bethesda, I was ushered into the commanding officer's office and he told everybody that was about that we had very secret orders. We were going to participate in the upcoming atomic bomb tests. I fortunately kept my mouth shut. I didn't let the cat out of the bag, but I already knew what I was going to do. But it was all explained to me. This hot, super secret.
Q: How much did you know about the upcoming atomic bomb?
Cronkite: I didn't know a thing about it. My wife knew more about it than I did. Lozner is the guy that I met first in Bethesda with the American Red Cross. And he had become ill and would have been the hematologist for Operation Crossroads. And when he couldn’t go, he was asked is there anybody in the Navy that could do it. And he suggested me, and they issued the orders. You know, suddenly you are the hematologist whether you're competent to do it or not.
Q: I'd like to back up a little bit Dr. Cronkite to how you became a hematologist. Hematology then was not a specialty.
Cronkite: No it wasn't. It was a matter of being interested in it. At that time, in 1946, hematology was really not identified, recognized, sub-specialty in medicine. How did I become a hematologist? I guess I just became one. Grew like topsy into it.
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