Saturday, November 5, 2022

My Friends Sam Katz and Cathy Wilfert


The professor I was closest to at Harvard Medical School, Sam Katz, just died at age 95. My classmate Karl Singer, now primary care doc in New Hampshire, who is the key guy in our class email list, sent around Sam's obituary.

I worked in Sam's lab for the final semester of med school. He was a very kind, kind man, which was just what I needed, since I didn't adapt well to the more impersonal style of much of HMS.  The head of the lab was Dr. John Enders, who had gotten the Nobel Prize for culturing the polio virus and making a vaccine possible. In the lab everybody loved to call Dr. Enders, "Chief." He looked very English – pale complexion, pipe, tweed, quiet. He was a gentle man. Everyone else was very junior, and I was, of course, the most junior of all.

The lab was such a happy place. The people in it were just out and out nice. There was no sense of competition with any other lab, nothing about money, everyone was just interested in doing good work. I helped one of the researchers, Mary Ellen Wohl, do a study on the residua of infections in babies by RSV – respiratory syncytial virus, the same virus that is circulating around the country now as I write and filling up children's hospitals with wheezing children with pneumonia – to see if they had persistent lung damage. I called the parents and got them to bring the babies in, and then I received them and held the mask over their faces to make the measurements. She thanked me profusely for my help, telling everyone she couldn't have done it without me. I think she was amazed that I actually made the calls and brought the patients in without being prompted. Her person to person recommendation got me a good internship at UCSF. It's as they say, sometimes the most important thing is just to show up. Low bar.

The tone of the office came from the Chief and from Sam. I remember being with Sam at one rounds or another at Children's, and outside in the corridor, he was accosted verbally by one of the other hospital docs over some issue, with real heat and accusation.  Sam endured it for a minute, they just turned his back and strode away, his face flushed, saying nothing.

When I graduated I donated my desk to one of Sam's kids; it was quite a moving exercise to carry that desk down the stairs - it was one of those old wood secretary's desks that I had gotten somewhere as surplus. He had all those kids, I'm sure his job didn't pay him much, and he regarded that old desk as a real gift.  "Are you sure?" he asked me.  As if I would charge him for it.  Then he got the job of Department Chair at Duke and moved there, saying that his wife just didn't want to leave Boston and move to NC, so she and the kids stayed behind, maybe hoping that he wouldn't like it and would move back. 

But of course, then Cathy, Sam's research partner in the lab, who had been pregnant when I was in the lab with them and they were both married to other people, a warm and maybe somewhat awkward and deeply motivated scientific sort who told us that she hadn't really intended to get pregnant but that “sex is fun,” moved to Duke at the same time, and when somehow I had occasion to visit them at Duke, they drove me around together, the two of them in the front seat, and still didn't say anything.  They had some look about them, should we tell Budd?  But as I say, I didn't say anything.  For me, it was just the continuation of the lab, "nothing to see here."  So later they got married.  They weren't that much older than I was, I guess, 15 years older for Sam, but they had that Mom and Pop aura.

Remembering Sam and Cathy and the lab, I think of what I'm currently reading, Annie Ernaux, the recent Nobel Prize winner for literature - brilliant writer, and short books! - who describes with such passion and intensity the episodes of her life, with such a personal vibrancy.  She is exactly the age of me and my classmates, born in 1941. In The Years, a panorama, or maybe a pastiche of her life from her early memories of the WWII years, up to 2000, she is so conscious of time, how it erases so much, what stands out, the images.  I imagine that this is what we increasingly face: all that gets forgotten, the memories we hold on to, and try to pass on, some of them. I remember Sam, and Cathy, and Dr. Avery (what was her first name? I'm sure it will come to me after I post this, you know how it is.) They were just so kind. Tender memories.

I wrote this poem a few years ago:

We live in the memories of others,

And then not even that.

Budd Shenkin

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