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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 a tape-recorded interview with Dr. Leon Jacobson, conducted by Madeline Marget on February 28, 1989, in Chicago, Illinios. Dr. Jacobson reviewed the transcripts of his interview and made minor corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that the following oral history is a verbatim transcript of spoken, rather than written prose.
August 28, 1989
Q: This interview is with Dr. Leon Jacobson, February 28, 1989 at the University of Chicago. I am Madeline Marget. How are you Dr. Jacobson?
Jacobson: I am fine.
Q: Good. I'll see that we know that it's recording for a fact. [machine off] Dr. Jacobson, would you like to tell us about your early life at all? What some influences were?
Jacobson: Yes, I can because I'm rather proud of it. I grew up in North Dakota. My parents owned a large ranch. I went to a country school. I passed the state examination when I was eleven but my parents and my teacher decided I was too young to go to high school, which would have meant I'd have to "batch" it in my own space during the frigid winter months. So when I was twelve I went to a high school, but I had to have an apartment because it was too far from home. It was actually seven miles, but in the winter time you can't get there in a Model T. You ride a horse or bicycle or walk, but it's too cold to continue as winter sets in. So, I would stay there for most of the year in an apartment with another student who had the same problem. I or we cooked our own meals. When I went to college at age 16, I had decided I wanted to get a degree in agriculture. I knew a lot of the people in the ranching and farming business, and I knew the county and regional officials who were interested in agriculture, I hoped if I studied Agriculture I might be able to help to modernize that business (kind of naive at that age). So, I went to college at North Dakota State University in Fargo North Dakota and took my first two years in agriculture, which I loved dearly. Then I went broke, because this was in the middle of the twenties and dustbowl and everyone was broke at that time, including me. So, I decided maybe the best thing to do was to try to see if I could teach school. So, I contacted the state superintendent of Public Instruction in North Dakota and gave her my whole background and so on. And she said, yes, I could teach but I should take a couple of courses such as educational psychology. And I wrote then to various places asking for a country school teaching position and finally ended up as a school teacher in Sims, North Dakota.
Now, Sims, North Dakota, by that time, had lost hundreds of people as the result of the closing of the coal mine because of its low BTU per ton, for the Northern Pacific Railroad engines. The brick factory also closed. These industries plus the free land had brought my mother and her family, and my father and his family in the late 1880's to the now extinct village. When I went there to teach, only a depot and a general store remained of a once populated and industrial town. Our ranch was contiguous to the little village. I taught there for three years. I had twenty-seven children in all eight grades. I taught them all in the same room, although we had another room for play, because they used to have first through fourth in one room and fifth through eighth because the population was greater, previously. My pupils used the spare room as a play room. I taught them manual training. The mothers of the children came in to teach sewing, etc., about once every two weeks; and we'd ski and sleigh ride during the noon hour. At any rate, I changed my mind about what I wanted to do during this wonderful experience, partly because if you have children in one room, and they're age five to whatever, you're going to have epidemics. And we did. We had whooping cough. We had measles. You name it. And I got interested--I helped one boy in particular who had petit mal (epilepsy), and it was a very interesting problem. He would be reading--I had the children read to all the other students after lunch hour if they were able to read well-- and I think he was reading Tom Sawyer, I don't remember which one. But he would be reading and then all of a sudden he would stop, but remain standing. Five or less seconds later, he would come back to consciousness again and continue reading where he had left off, and would not have missed a word. He would start exactly where he left off. But if he had these outside, he might run into a post or something, and he did. I communicated with the doctors in Bismarck and had him taken care of. That's how, I guess, I got thinking about medicine.
The other reason for changing my college training objectives was that, during the summers, I worked in Bismarck, North Dakota as a chemist in the state regulatory department. So then, when I went back to college, I took all the requirements I needed for entering medical school. I applied to only one institution and that was this one, here on campus, the University of Chicago and got in. I was still broke, so someone suggested I write to a man by the name of Shreve Archer who was head of Archer Daniels Midland Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Well then, he wrote me a letter and asked for information. I think I gave him reams of information. And finally, I got a letter from him and he said that he would give me a loan of $750 a year for the four years, assuming I did well. He would charge five percent interest, payable after graduation, as I was able. And I also did work all the time I was in medical school such as doing lab work in the evenings and with my then relatively minimal training in clinical medicine I would examine patients, call the patient's doctor and he would come in or not depending on his judgment of the situation.
Q: What did you tell Mr. Archer that persuaded him to support you?
Jacobson: That, I don't know. I wasn't begging him. But he asked me really important questions, I guess. He'd done it before for other people. Maybe he just decided he liked me. By the way, I never saw the man. He was on the board of Continental Bank here in Chicago, so he'd fly in from Minneapolis. He would send me a note and say, "Well, I'm coming in to Chicago and let's have lunch." I would, of course, write back and say, ''I would be delighted.'' But he was always too busy, so I never did see him. When I graduated, I told him I had graduated. And he sent me a lovely letter canceling the debt. So what was I to do to repay him? I actually then started a student loan fund in his name with the permission of his family and put all that money back. It was a lot of money then. But four-times-$750 is not a fortune. At any rate, I put it into loan funds for students.
While I was in medical school and I had to work as I noted previously, one of the heads of department, Clarence Hodges-- a very famous man in radiology-- taught me how to take x-ray pictures, develop the films, and how to give x-ray exposure to a given object, it might be mouse, rat or what have you, but not human. This is how I really got started in the radiation area. I took some special courses in diseases of the blood-forming tissue from Dr. William Bloom and his associates. That was for at least six months. He'd give me special assignments. And then I graduated from medical school in 1939. I continued some of this work with him and began to do research in diseases of the blood, studying other cases that were recorded and the current hospital cases available.
Q: Why blood?
Jacobson: Well, I was interested in diseases of the blood because I saw a lot of it as a student.
Q: There was no hematology then?
Jacobson: Yes, but it was a section of the department of medicine as a specialty, and I had a very good teacher there. And of course as an intern and even as a resident, you rotate through these things. One day, the man who was head of hematology asked me if I would stay with him as a second-year resident, because I had finished my first year of residency. Then I saw a lot of cases. But what happened was that he left because of the army, although he was never called to duty.
Q: This was not Dr. Bloom?
Jacobson: No, it was Gurth Carpender. Carpender was the man who was the head of hematology at that time, before the war. He was English, born and educated. He was not put in the army, for whatever reason. He went to the University of Southern California and took over hematology there.
Q: What was his first name?
Jacobson: Gurth. G-U-R-T-H. He didn't have a large girth, however.
Then they put me in charge of hematology, even though I was only just out of residency, and were working on radiation exposure experiments. I also had a couple of other research programs going at the time. Then, one morning I was called up to a hospital floor to show house officers how to take care of a patient with a case of "watering pot" perineum; tuberculosis, that is. Do you know what that is?
Q: I know what tuberculosis is, but I don't know what--
Jacobson: Well, "watering pot" perineum is a terrible disease process, because the bladder is infected with the tuberculosis bacteria. The process erodes through the wall of the bladder and then erodes through to the perineum and lower buttocks, creating a fistula. So they pass urine that way. They have to be catheterized and irrigated every now and again in order to stop drainage through the skin in these areas referred to. So I was up there helping them, showing them how to do it, all dressed up with gown and gloves on and all the rest of the stuff. And there was an emergency call for me. Since I had finished the show and tell I got out of my gown, mask, and gloves, and washed up; answered the phone from the nursing station, and they said, "Go down to the dean's office immediately." When that happens, you think, "My goodness, what have I done?" You go through that in your mind. I couldn't think of anything I had done that was bad. So I walked down there immediately, after I had taken my gown and gloves off. The secretary took me to the door, opened it, and I walked in, and there was the head of medicine, George Dick, the dean, William Taleferro, the head of radiology, Paul Hodges, the head of the hospital, Arthur C. Bachmeyer, and two people that I had never seen before. The whole conversation-- I got over my fright because I didn't see any sign of anger or sternness-- no one was-- they were smiling. I sat down after I'd met them all. And I might say that, the only one of that group who didn't look very cheerful was the dean. But actually that day he finally smiled. So, I was introduced to the two strangers by the dean. He said, "We've called you down here because there is some activity on campus that requires someone who is interested in blood and who has had good training in medicine. We have decided that you're it." It wasn't said quite that way, and I have to admit that the dean wasn't really an ogre. Over the years that followed he helped me set up experiments on the effect of shielding various lymphatic organs and irradiating the balance of the body. It took very little shielding to preserve an immunity, for example shielding the appendix of the rabbit would prevent suppression of the immune response.
Q: What year was this?
Jacobson: It was February of '42. They said that some of the material they're working with was hazardous to health. And since I had been doing working with Dr. Carpender and had taken special training with Dr. Bloom and I knew blood forming tissue and I saw a lot of such patients as a house officer, finally as an instructor, even as attending [physician]. Everyone talked a little about why they needed me, so I had a general opinion. At first it seemed to me that all they wanted was someone to examine the people at regular intervals. But they didn't tell me what was going on. They told me that they would give me the whole set-up for hundreds of people to be seen and [their] health monitored. Blood, physicals, etc. They'd give me all the space I needed, all the help I needed; I could recruit people to help me do physicals and all that. What could I do but acquiesce; we were at war.
Q: Who were the other two men present at the dean's office?
Jacobson: One was [William H.] Taleferro; he was the dean, George Dick, chief of department of Medicine. Another one was Paul Hodges; he was head of radiology. The two men were Norman Hilberry and the other man, also a physician, was Creutz.1
Well, when they said what they wanted me to do, I didn't see how I could get out of it. So I said, "OK. I'll do the best I can." We all shook hands. They said, "Now, these two men" – Hilberry and Creutz—"will take you off and talk to you some more right now." I took them up to my laboratory. I had mice in cages in my office and I've said many times that that interview didn't last very long because I don't think they could stand the very strong odor of mice. At any rate, they told me at that time that we were dealing with radioactivity and I had had experience with that too, especially with the diseases mentioned (Rx of polycythemia, leukemia, etc.). It was in late '39 that I started it with the help of the physicist Louis Slotin; a couple of years into atom bomb geometry Louis Slotin were killed in an experiment on how to detonate a plutonium bomb.
That meeting didn't last long but then they arranged with me to meet again and we met over in the physical science area, in one of the buildings, the physics building-- Ryerson-- that's the name of it. That's where the whole headquarters of the Metallurgical Laboratory was located.
Jacobson: Ryerson. That's where Arthur Compton had his office, Compton was Director of the Met Lab, as did the others involved; [Enrico] Fermi, [Leo] Szilard, [Eugene] Wigner, Anderson, [James] Franck, Creutz. Then one day I said, "Look. I know I'm working with radiation, and I have general security clearance. I can't talk about the project, not even to my wife, my friends, or my patients. In fact I can't talk to anyone except within the security area, and even there one was not supposed to speak of the real objective, it had a super secret classification." I was somewhat uncomfortable under these circumstances, so one day I called up Dr. Eilberry and I said, "Look, I want to see you." "Come on over." So I went over to Ryerson, sat down in his office, and I told him I didn't think I could be effective in my position unless I knew something about what was cooking. He said, "I can't tell you." One was not supposed to talk to anyone about what was going on in the Metallurgy Labs. But he said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll administer the oath of secrecy and then I'm going to hand you a book and I want you to look on page 473 and read the second paragraph." I took the book and I found the paragraph and it said, "If you were to wake up one morning and half the world was blown away, then you'd know we'd harnessed the atom." That's all he said, but I was under oath. That was it. I found out at that time, and if anyone thinks I wasn't shaking and at the point of tears he or she is nuts.
As things went along-- this was early '42-- we had a lot of discussions because there was so much work to do if you were to be prepared to study the localization effects of thousands of isotopes or the penetrating radiations that would be produced in an atomic reaction. So, it was decided we'd have a biological program as well a medical one. And they asked Dr. Robert Stone, who was head of Radiology at the University of California, San Francisco. He had been involved with Ernest Lawrence, working with him with the isotopes that were artificially produced in the first cyclotron. And he had also used the cyclotron to try to see whether fast neutrons would be any better than X rays for the treatment of malignancy. So, he was made chief of the whole program here. Then they called in Kenneth Cole from Columbia. He was a physiologist with a great deal of background-- not in radiation necessarily, but in biology and physiology of the nervous system, the heart in particular. Then he recruited people. I was a part of that division.
Then after the first pile became active in, I think it was December 2, 1942 of the same year, Stone had to move to run the Oak Ridge center. I was then asked to handle the Chicago part of it, and I essentially became associate director of health because I really had to check everything for him. But I had a large program under Cole in radiobiology as well. I also had a program in Bethesda with Egon Lorenz. He was a German physicist who had learned biology as well over the years. Then they also had all the other kinds of people you'd like to see around, like the geneticists and so on. I then was asked to join in a very large study at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda trying to determine whether the so-called tolerance whole-body dose was correct. In fact, at that time 0.1 roentgens per day was considered a safe dose. We started out with doses of 0.1 to 8.8 roentgens per day. We used special inbred mice and guinea pigs, and so on-- pure genetic strains. I'll tell you what the end of that was, although it went on and on and on for several years. Didn't finish, some of it, until after the war was over. But I had to fly back and forth. I also set up the hematology laboratories in Oak Ridge and in Hanford. In fact, we had trained most of the technicians here in Chicago; then they went down there or up there-- any of these places where they were needed. I was not the boss of these places. I was a consultant, in a sense. But they needed the help of someone who could check on the technical medical laboratory work as well, as well as gather these people and train them for their medical technology work.
Well then, coming back to early 1942, people were just coming in to Chicago by droves because it was growing and growing and growing. No one was allowed in the pile unless they were part of the pile operation. But I was and so was Ray Zirkle who was a radiobiologist, and two technicians of mine: Miss Evelyn Gaston and Mrs. Edna K. Marks. Both of these extraordinarily talented women are coauthors on many of my publications. It was these talented ladies who really kept my whole research program under control. But there many others who were important, but we had to train some of them and send many of them to Hanford where the plutonium production and separation was done, and others were sent to Oak Ridge or Los Alamos. We had an enormous number of experiments going on various things-- artificially produced radioactive isotopes had a high priority. As all of them were, before the pile went into operation. We even did work on plutonium that had been discovered and isolated. But we just had trace amounts of plutonium for biological studies whereas we had unlimited amounts of various radio isotopes for biological experiments that were produced in cyclotrons and later from pile operations.
Q: How much was known about plutonium then?
Jacobson: Well, the man who discovered it was here on campus during the war and we got trace amounts quite early for physiological studies, etc. __________________
1Creutz, who was one of the men who met with the Dean and I, was the man who in late '41 or early '42 dashed into Arthur Compton's office all excited. He exclaimed to Compton. "Do you realize that when and if we get the piles in controlled states and begin producing plutonium in large quantities, we'll have thousands of radioactive molecules as well as penetrating radiation doses, thus a large potential risk to all our personnel? We'd better get a medical and biological study going to see we get maximum monitoring of dose, and medical studies to detect any radiation injury." Compton obviously went to work on this matter almost immediately. --LOJ
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