From the housestaff and friends - one side of the story ...
Title: You Look Handsome Like the Devil From a letter, Walter Kempner to Eugene Stead, October 6, 1988
Contributor: Walter Kempner
"I wonder what you are thinking on the eve of your eightieth birthday. Some special, quite "historical" scenes are passing before my eyes:"
Thirty years ago I went to your office and said to you, "Please come with me."
You said, "What about?"
I said, "Just come. I will show you."
I was rather annoyed and excited. You came down the steps from your office to the PDC. Some building was going on there and there was quite a lot of noise, dust and commotion. I asked in a reproachful voice, "Could you please tell me where I could examine my patients?"
Without a moment's hesitation you said, "Walter, you look handsome like the devil."
I burst out laughing and said, "You are the greatest psychiatrist in existence."
One time my application for a grant was turned down again. Mr. Oscar Ewing, the former Social Security administrator, interfered on my behalf and somebody was sent from Washington to discuss the matter with me.
I asked you to come to my office to help me with this gentleman. You came and I introduced you to each other and I said, "Mr. X has just explained to me that my application was not clear enough and that I should resubmit it in greater detail and stress a number of special points."
I still see you sitting there without moving. All of a sudden you looked furious and exploded, "If you ask me, that's a big bunch of hooey! Everybody knows what Dr. Kempner has done and what he is planning to do."
Mr. X responded, "Do you know what kind of committees we have in Washington to decide on these questions?"
You replied, "Yes, I have been a member on all of those committees and I know how things are done."
Shortly thereafter I got my grant.
In the fall of 1947 I had been informed by the Duke Biochemistry Department that they would no longer do any cholesterol determinations. A meeting was arranged at which the Chairman of the Biochemistry Department and his Associate Professor were sitting on one side of the table and you, whom I had asked to help me, and myself on the other side.
I argued that the patients pay for this work and you emphasized the importance of cholesterol determinations much better than anyone might do today.
The biochemists said, "We do not care. We will determine the sugar, phosphorus, calcium and everything else, but not the cholesterol. There is no scientific basis for its importance and it's just a waste of manpower and money."
For quite a few years the cholesterol determinations therefore had to be done in my research laboratory, which, by the way, turned out to be an advantage because of the probably greater accuracy.
But one day the Associate Professor asked me to check his own cholesterol.
I said, "Did you not tell me some years ago that cholesterol is of no importance in medicine?"
He answered, "I never said such a thing in all my life!"
Unfortunately the figure found was rather high, above 300, and sadly enough he died not many years later from a vascular accident.
Editor's note: It was at about that time that I, an assistant resident, was asked by Dr. Stead to do a Sunday School presentation on - you guessed it - "Cholesterol," which was then only beginning to be considered of significance as a risk factor in cardiovascular disease. Dr. Kempner was of course very interested in what beneficial effect his "Rice Diet" might have on such risk factors. I spent hours in the library distilling the sparse current literature on cholesterol, its origins and how it infiltrated blood vessels.
Dr. Stead took me aside after my presentation and told me what a good job I'd done. He then added something that made me feel like I'd received the Congressional Medal of Honor -- "I've always been a 'Voyles man'," he said.
At that moment I was tempted to get in line for consideration of following Sam Martin and Crip Holland as chief resident but instead (no pun intended) I opted for cardiovascular fellowship with Dr. Ed Orgain.
When I saw you for the first time it was in the fall of 1946 in Dr. Hanes' good old office. You were 38 and I was 43. You asked me, "Why is everybody so much against you?"
I said, "Part of the fault is my own, but Dr. Hanes was also guilty."
You got up from your chair and closed the door to the next room, where Dr. Hanes' former secretary was sitting. Then I explained that Dr. Hanes had made a trip to Germany to bring me here and had fed me down the throats of my colleagues too often when he wanted them to do more research.
As long as I did not see any private patients they could always say that after my teaching on the wards and in the OPC I had plenty of time but they did not. But when I had more patients in the PDC than the other doctors, I was no longer their beloved friend.
Of course the worst was that I behaved too often "like a damned Prussian" as Buddy Hackett once termed it in a newspaper interview. For this you blamed me in an almost paternal fashion.
There was also ill feeling in other departments. In fact the situation had become so ugly that I received a letter a short time after Dr. Hanes' death saying that I should give up my two laboratory rooms which I had had for two years, because these rooms were "needed for something else."
You told me that you would be with me a whole day observing what I was doing. You spent the morning with me seeing my patients on the public wards, Nott, Osler and Long and then we had Staff lunch together. There one of my at that time "not-friends" greeted you and said mockingly, "Now will you never eat anything but rice again?"
You answered quite seriously, "I found what I saw this morning quite interesting." (Incidentally the mocker some years later became one of the most ardent advocates of my work.)
In the afternoon I showed you my patients on the private side and then you came to my laboratory for another hour. That evening one of my associates asked me, "What do you think of the new chairman of the Medical Department?"
I answered, "I'm not objective. I like him."
On January first I had to give up my two rooms in the Physiology Department but when you started your chairmanship in the Department of Medicine I got a much more beautiful laboratory with four large rooms instead of the two.
When I heard that you had been building a house on the lake with your own hands, I asked, "How are you able to do this kind of thing, too?" Your answer was, "I think that somebody who was able to study medicine should not have any difficulty putting a few bricks together."
Two of my friends went to see you there for a cookout, bringing the victuals with them. The first thing they did was to melt a lot of butter for frying steaks. When the butter was bubbling, they told me you suddenly seized the pan and poured the content on the ground. "We are better off without that!" you said.
It made a greater impression on my friends than all my sermons.
Fifteen years ago you talked with me about retirement and I said, "In other words you want me to still sit in my office age 90 (I made trembling gestures) and shake this way with my hands?"
You answered, "So long as your diagnoses are correct, I do not see the slightest reason why you should not shake."
"So many charming and interesting things in which you had the leading part have happened in the past 42 years that all I can say now on your 80th birthday is, 'I THANK YOU.'
And for my sake and for the sake of quite a few others, many, many happy and healthy returns!
Yours still for a long time, I hope."
We miss you, Dr. K - your heels clicking as you point your finger at the reluctant patient, shouting, "Eat zee rice!"