Doctors in the garden
In a time when compassion and logic often seem in short supply, many of us have a newfound appreciation for doctors and scientists. Saranac Lake’s history is full of professionals in medicine and science who had a passion for learning and an intense curiosity about the natural world.
Our own Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was a naturalist at heart. He learned an interest in the natural world from his father James, who accompanied his friend John J. Audubon on scientific expeditions. When Edward fell sick with TB, he credited the peace he found in the Adirondack forest for his ability to fight the disease.
Later, that same appreciation for nature inspired Trudeau to pursue the scientific study of tuberculosis. In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch announced his discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium. Trudeau learned of his study and rushed to replicate Koch’s work, despite never having used a microscope himself. Motivated by his desire to find a cure and his own curiosity, Trudeau demonstrated incredible persistence in the face of adversity. He began his work in a remote, freezing village with no running water, electricity, or train service. As he stated in his autobiography, “One of my great problems was to keep my guinea-pigs alive in winter.” Trudeau worked with improvised laboratory equipment, and even when his first home and home laboratory burned down, he didn’t give up.
Trudeau died of TB in 1915. An effective antibiotic treatment would not be perfected for almost forty years. In the meantime, Saranac Lake’s community life would be enriched by the intellectual curiosity of countless men and women in medicine and science. One such person was Dr. Lawrason Brown. Believing it important that patients taking the rest cure keep their minds occupied, Brown encouraged them to study various crafts, ornithology, and botany. In 1905, Dr. Brown established the open-air workshop at the Trudeau Sanatorium to provide formal training in occupational therapy.
Dr. Leroy Upson Gardner served as the director of the Saranac Laboratory from 1927-1946. He performed the first study to show a connection between cancer and asbestos, and he led efforts to understand other industrial diseases such as silicosis. Dr. Gardner’s passion for science extended to botany. Alice Wareham recalled participating in a wildflower contest for the children who attended the Baldwin School. The teacher was surprised when Alice found what she thought was a yellow trillium, and didn’t believe her. Alice asked Dr. Gardner, and instead of saying, “you’re wrong”, he said, “show it to me.” She did, and he confirmed that it was a rare mutation of a yellow trillium.
Over the years at Historic Saranac Lake, we have had the pleasure of meeting many relations of Dr. Gardner. Our understanding of local history is enriched by personal relationships we have developed with descendants of Drs. Ayvazian, Baldwin, Blanchet, Bristol, Brown, Decker, Eckmann, Gardner, Heise, James, Keet, Leetch, Long, Meade, Merkel, Neely, Packard, Pecora, Petroff, Sampson, Sandhaus, Schwartzberg, Seidenstein, Shefrin, Steenken, Wolinsky, and of course, Trudeau.
We all have a story of a doctor who has made a difference in our lives. My grandfather, Dr. Landon Bachman, served as a beloved pediatrician in Millbrae, California, for some fifty years. After retirement, he continued to read his medical and scientific journals, and he turned to gardening. Instead of caring for children, he nurtured flowers every day until the fog rolled in. A tangled maze of color, my grandfather’s garden was a beautiful representation of his life’s work of caring for life itself.
Today, we are grateful for doctors and scientists like Trudeau, Brown, Gardner, and Bachman who continue to improve the world with their curiosity and compassion.
Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake