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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. James Tullis, conducted by Eric Hoffman on August 7 and 8, 1985, in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Tullis reviewed the transcripts of his interviews and made the 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 7, 1985
Q: --Ohio in 1914?
Tullis: June 22, 1914.
Q: I was wondering if you could give some background, early background, your childhood, things that might have influenced you to go into science and become a physician. And your Ohio background.
Tullis: I first decided to become a physician when I was about seventeen years of age and had an accident while I was a junior in preparatory school at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio. I was hospitalized for several months and had an opportunity to talk with the interns and watch the house officers, and was quite turned on by the experience and decided at that point I wanted to become a physician. My original premise was to be an orthopedic surgeon, because that's what I was being treated for, an injury of my back, but after I prepared for medical school I became so interested in biochemistry that I began to emphasize this.
While I was in medical school, I had a concept--which I've never been able fully to exploit, but which I've carried with me all through life--of seeing if one, through hypertonic and hypotonic changes outside the normal physiologic range, could influence the permeability of malignant cells in such a way they would rupture before, or at least have deranged functions, before normal cells, thinking that this would be a physical way that one might be able to differentiate the two, both diagnostically and therapeutically. So that while I was in medical school many years later, at Duke University, I took two terms off and did a project on the permeability effects of X-ray on Paramecium, where we could study the permeability of sodium and potassium exchange in radiated Paramecium, which are single-cell organisms, and easy to work with. My idea was then to carry these tools over to a study of blood cells.
Q: Was there anything in your early training, even going back to elementary school, that would have prepared you for a career in science? Was there a science curriculum followed?
Tullis: I don't think so. I enjoyed science always, but it was not, when I was a youngster, which is long before you were around, there was no emphasis on science education in schools at all, during my--well, my earliest days of school were in the 1920s and my later days in the 1930s, and at that time science was available for those -who were interested in it, but there was no public pressure, there was no enthusiasm about science. Indeed, if one said to his parents he was going to have a scientific career, he was looked at a little askance, as I was in my family. There had never been a physician. My father was a clergyman, my brother was a businessman, and no one had ever thought of science. So they thought I was just a little abnormal.
Q: This Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio--you went there until 1932?
Tullis: I graduated in 1932.
Q: Graduated, then. Okay.
Tullis: I had been there for several years, and my brother before me. It's a small preparatory school in a small New England-like community, out there in the Western Reserve. In fact, it's the oldest secondary school west of the Allegheny Mountains in the United States, and was founded in 1802. It's a very old, old school.
Q: And they didn't have real science--?
Tullis: Oh, they had science. We had a compulsory one or two years of physics, and one or two years of chemistry, just plain, ordinary chemistry, and mathematics, and so on. But, again, that was part of the curriculum, so one did it in order to get into college, but there was no obligatory emphasis on science.
Q: Then, Rollins College in Winter Park--
Tullis: Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, which is where I went, because as part of my illness--what had got me interested in science the year before--my family wanted me where I'd be in a benign climate. I think that I was sent down there so that I wouldn't get any infections.
Q: Okay. And what was the curriculum like?
Tullis: I beg your pardon?
Q: What was the curriculum like at Rollins?
Tullis: Superb. Rollins College--at the time I went to school, there were only two colleges that were getting themselves into new concepts of education. One was the University of Chicago under Robert Hutchins, and the other was Rollins College. These two schools set up curricula that were able to be tailored to the interests of the individual. He could go to school in as short a period of time or as long a period of time as he wanted, depending on how hard he wanted to work. And there were no interdepartmental barriers. One could take all science or all whatever and I enjoyed the school very much and got a good education because they had small classes. The largest class I had only had fifteen students in it. So one could get very direct interrelationships with his teachers. I remember my chemistry teachers there very well, both the organic chemistry teacher, Dr. Wise, who was a DuPont chemist who had been ill and had gone to Florida, as many people did in those days, for their health, and my faculty advisor, Dr. Sandstrom, who was the head of chemistry and influenced me a great deal. He was an M.I.T. graduate who had developed glomerulo-nephritis here in Boston, and his physicians had said: "If you have any more streptococcal infections, you'll get recurrence, so get out of this climate." So that he was there, and again, it was almost like having a close tutor all the way through.
Q: And it's at Rollins College that you develop your interest in biochemistry?
Tullis: Yes. Very definitely. And then further emphasized when I was in medical school.
Q: Could you talk a little about--it's an interest of mine--what it meant to be interested in biochemistry; what type of background was given to one interested in biochemistry in this time period?
Tullis: Well, one had the standard courses, of course, in organic and qualitative analysis and quantitative analysis. We had one semester of physical chemistry. I wanted more, but that's all that was given at Rollins, and then a year of organic chemistry with heavy emphasis on laboratory. We spent almost half a day, three days a week, in the laboratory, as opposed to today, where it's more theoretical and less practical.
Q: Okay. Who were promoted as the leading lights in biochemistry in this period? Mid-1930s?
Tullis: Well, that really came more into my life in the 1940s and I'll just get to that in a few minutes if that's all right.
Q: Okay. Fine. No problem with that. Okay. At Duke University, you proceeded with your medical school?
Tullis: Yes, I went straight to Duke from Rollins. My reason for going to Duke, again, was somewhat odd, because that was a new school. It isn't that I'm always looking for new things, but there had never been a scientist or a physician in my family and my father had a good fishing companion that he used to go to northern Canada with who was a hematologist and chief of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, the Crile Clinic in Cleveland. And he said to Russell Hayden, who had been professor of medicine at Hopkins before he went on to Cleveland, he said, "Russell, my son thinks he wants to be a doctor. What school should he go to?" Russell Hayden, having come from Hopkins, said, "Well, you know, Hopkins has just been gutted by this new school, Duke University, which has gone up there and hired away most of the young, good faculty to set up a new school in connection with the newly reorganized Duke University, which, previously, had been Trinity College and was renamed because it was the recipient of tobacco money of the Dukes. And he said, "I think if I were a youngster, I would go to Duke, because during his professional career, that will be one of the solid scientific schools, as opposed to just applied medical care." He said, "Your son's interested in science, so let him go to a school where there's good science." So that's how I happened to go to Duke. Now, at Duke, there was a standard curriculum--that is, I guess there still is, at most places. It wasn't just freelancing like it has been here at Harvard in the 1970's. One had to go over certain specific hurdles and almost all of them--very little elective time--but again, they operated on a four-quarter period of the year, rather than two semesters, and one could take the four quarters by going to school year round. Each quarter was eleven weeks, and one could go--I'm sorry, twelve weeks, and one could go year-round or one could go three quarters or two quarters, whatever he wished. I think this was done because in the Depression days, there were many students that couldn't afford to go to school year-round, couldn't afford the tuition--they had to work part of the time. And in those days, there was no federal money or any other money for scholarships. The beauty of that was, for me, that I was able to go to the four semesters, for the first couple of years. Then I had some--I mean, quarters--time saved up and was able to work on this project which I was just burning to get into, where I could study permeability effects of exchange of water and salt and whether or not one could swell cells, shrink cells, and so on, if they had been damaged, which is what the X-ray of the Paramecium was.
Q: This work on Paramecium, was it based on someone else's work, another--
Tullis: No, no, no. I just wanted, I wanted to study permeability. Well, now, where could one study permeability? Well, with single cells. Where does one get single cells biologically, you know---like a Paramecium for $2 a shipment?
Q: Okay. What sort of lab facilities existed at Duke, being a new medical--
Tullis: Oh, they had beautiful scientific buildings. It was really a superb school. Because it was so new, it had--things were so inexpensive in those days--very excellent equipment, and nice laboratories, and so on. Things were not so crowded then as what you've probably been used to, you see. When I went to the professor of pathology, Dr. Forbus, I said, "I have a project I want to work on." I described it to him; he said, "Well, I'll give you a laboratory." It was as simple as that! Today, you'd have to strangle somebody else to get room to get into the laboratory, you know.
Q: This was in 1940 to 19--?
Tullis: That was 1936 to 1940, in that period.
Q: And when was Duke actually established?
Tullis: 1932 was the first class, I think. I believe the first graduating class was 1932.
Q: Was Duke fashioned after the biochemistry departments that were being established, for example, at Physician's and Surgeon's at Columbia?
Tullis: It was strongly influenced by the Hopkins.
Q: The Hopkins Plan.
Tullis: And because most of the professors--a few were brought from Harvard, but most of them, however, came from Johns Hopkins, because the dean of the school, who was brought down to establish the school several years in advance, was himself a professor of pediatrics at the Hopkins. A very bright young man, and he brought with him a strong influence of the early days at Hopkins, which had only been, you see, thirty or forty years before that, that it had been formed. So he had these ideas strongly in his mind.
Q: Was there a separate biochemistry department or was it just part of a clinical service for a hospital?
Tullis: No, at the medical school, they had their own departments. It was in the same large building that was adjacent to, or connected with, the hospital itself. But there were separate clinical laboratories in the hospital, so that the laboratories were run just like any basic laboratories were.
Q: So, it was open for basic research.
Tullis: Oh, yes; oh, very much. Very much. Yes.
Q: Are there any people who are active in research at that time that you would like to comment on, that had particular influence on you?
Tullis: I don't think so, because most of the influence came a little bit later in my life.
Tullis: Except for Wiley Forbus, the professor of pathology, who was, I think, the epitome of the seventeenth-century man, which I feel was the height of the combination of the humanities and science. He was skilled and scholarly in everything he did, and was a very broad person, and could talk opera as easily as he could talk pathology. He was writing a textbook on pathology, so he spent much of his time in his office just with his books, and so on, but he always made himself available to me. And I had quite a lot of inspiration from him.
Q: I have you down as entering into internship and residency at Roosevelt Hospital in New York.
Tullis: That's right. I left Duke in June of 1940, and went for my internship and medical residency at the Roosevelt Hospital. The war started while I was there, there in training. We had what was called an affiliated unit at the hospital. These were units that were taken in as a whole hospital into the Armed Forces when the Armed Forces needed them, and then we were assigned the enlisted men. But we brought our own professional team, including nurses, doctors, and soon, because of the abrupt urgency of threatened invasion of England, we were marched out onto the boats in the summer of 1942 and shipped abroad directly to England as an affiliated unit, the 9th Evacuation Hospital.
Q: And that's the Roosevelt unit was--
Tullis: That's the Roosevelt unit.
Q: From Roosevelt Hospital.
Tullis: Roosevelt Hospital in New York.
Q: I see. Did this change your outlook or plans as far as medical or scientific practice?
Tullis: Well, at the time, I hated it, but, in retrospect, it was a very helpful period for me, because in my internship and residency I had gotten a glimpse of the clinical practice in medicine, was being pulled strongly in that direction. And this gave me a three-year hiatus where I was still doing medicine, because we had the same teachers, the same doctors as teachers, and so on, but free of the pressures of an immediate career decision. It gave me an opportunity to think over how much I would like to get into a more academic background than I was receiving at the Roosevelt Hospital.
Q: Could you recount some of your experiences in the Roosevelt Unit?
Tullis: Well, medically, the most important experiences were the diversity of disease to which I was exposed. We were only in England briefly; we were sent there because they thought Hitler was going to invade England, and they didn't have enough hospitals, they didn't have any supplies. They had nothing. This was early in 1942, and there was just every indication that soon it would all be over.
But, after we got to England, apparently the concept of invading Africa as a diversionary thing was conceived, and our unit was then attached to the English army, because, again, they had no mobile hospitals, and we went into the Oran invasion in North Africa as back-up for the English forces. That war only lasted in Africa four or five days, and we were then detached from the English troops and assigned to the Free French forces, which had been left in North Africa, which were not part of the Vichy regime. It was mostly their colonial troops: the Senegalese, the New Caledonians, the Goums, the Moors, and so on. And we remained a French hospital there all the way through Africa through the Tunisian Invasion and took care of vast amounts of tropical kinds of illness that I had never seen before in my life! Worms such as I've never seen, I hope I never see again, quite a bit of, well, such things as leprosy. I'd never seen leprosy before, and I have never seen it since. All types of strange diseases of underdeveloped countries that we would never see in the United States. A great deal of hepatitis in North Africa, a lot of malaria when we went on into Sicily.
Then, once we got on over to Italy, we were detached from the French and assigned back to the U.S. Army, and our 9th Evacuation Hospital--our Roosevelt unit--then remained with the American forces for the southern invasion of southern France, and all up into Germany, and so on.
But the main influence of war on me as an individual was not that medical exposure but a pure chance exposure. In the fall of 1942, we were over in Sicily, and the Sicilian campaign had been won, and the Italian invasion was just starting, and we were left in Sicily as back-up troops for going into Italy, not knowing whether we'd be sent to Sorrento, where the early invasion had started, or to Naples. While they were trying to make up their minds where to send this extra hospital unit, we had nothing to do. So three other physicians and I decided to go to the Holy Land. We'd never been there, we thought the war was in the other direction, and I had heard about it ever since I was a boy in Sunday School, so I wanted to see that whole area around Palestine, and so on. This was before the State of Israel had been founded. So we decided we would go. We went to the commanding officer. He said, "Well, I can't give you leave to go, but I won't look if you do go." So we went AWOL, and hitchhiked on a British supply plane over to Algiers one afternoon, and then decided we'd sit at the Algiers airport; each of us would try to hitch a ride to Cairo, and we'd meet there and take the train to Jerusalem. This was at Christmastime. And the others were tired, and said they were going to go to bed; there was a tent area for loose officers there, so they went to bed. And I decided I was going to sit there until I got a ride.
So around about ten o'clock at night that first night that we were there, a plane landed, which was just a little old DC-3 plane, the kind that's called a C47--well, whatever it is. One of those with its rear end dragging along that ground, just two motored. And I watched it come up to the porch I was sitting on there, where the refueling was, and only six people got out. The plane holds many more than that. The first person to get out was manacled to his briefcase, had handcuffs on with his briefcase. The next one got out, and he, too, had a briefcase with handcuffs attached to him, so he couldn't leave it someplace. And the pilot got out, and the pilot was a general! And I thought, great heavenly days, what's going on? Well, these people came up to use the facilities and get a cup of coffee while the plane was being refueled, and I went up to the general, who was flying the plane, I said, "Have you got a ride? Have you got room for a stowaway?" And he said, "Oh, no, no. This is a very secret, urgent flight." And I said, "Thank you, anyway." So I just sat there. It took them a long time in those days to refuel, because they didn't have those big trucks they have nowadays. Maybe an hour, an hour and a half later, he came back to watch the refueling, to be sure it was going right, and he said to me, "Lieutenant, you get on that plane." No, first he said, "Where are you going?" I said, "Well, I'm just AWOL; I'm hitching a ride out. I want to go out to the Near East, and I'd like a ride to Cairo or someplace like that." He said, "Well, you get on, and walk up. Sit in the very front seat and nobody will see you. I have no passengers, practically, because this is a mission going someplace." So, I said, "All right. Thank you very much," and got on the plane, and sat way up at the front. Now, this was North Africa, Algiers--people think of that as being hot, but believe me, at Christmastime, it is really cold and I had a heavy sort of half-overcoat on.
Do you want me to go on with this?
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