Dr. Trudeau, lantern bearer, part 2

Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau had found his lamp and lit it. To get his fire burning, the new, self-appointed research scientist with a cause bought books and equipment, cleared out a spare room in his house and started up his own laboratory. Failures were frequent, and he knew that was part of the game. But his persistence finally led to published results that made sense, and Trudeau’s name began to float to the top in the field of respiratory medicine.

With the backing of wealthy benefactors, the fox hunter made real his dream of an experimental outdoor community for consumptives with the establishment, in 1884, of his pioneer Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium, which obliterated the old fox run. From then on, the population of “sports” declined in proportion to the swelling numbers of invading “lungers” who would be coming from everywhere.

But in 1887, “When Robert Louis Stevenson lived there, Saranac Lake was but a backwoods hamlet. The first locomotive had not yet startled the buck and the bear. The community which is now the metropolis of the Adirondacks had in 1887 less than a handful of the thousands who have since followed the trail first blazed in that region by Dr. Edward L. Trudeau, himself a victim of tuberculosis. Everybody knows why Stevenson went to Saranac, and everybody knows that Dr. Trudeau was his physician.” (“The Penny Piper of Saranac: An Episode in the Life of RLS,” Stephen Chalmers, 1911)

Stephen Chalmers was one face in that crowd of thousands who followed the trail here first blazed by Dr. Trudeau. He was 25 when his doctor in NYC gave him the bad news, that he had TB, and had to quit the city and head for the mountains. In 1908, Chalmers showed up in Saranac Lake. A writer by profession, he had kept his ink flowing during the 11 years he spent here and was instrumental in the formation of the Stevenson Society. He got to know Dr. Trudeau pretty well, too, enough to claim in his book “The Beloved Physician,” “For some reason but dimly comprehended after many years, Dr. Trudeau chose to reveal to the writer a phase of his inner self which he was compelled to keep hidden more or less from many others.”

The most popular story about the Trudeau-Stevenson relationship seems to be the one about the scum. The doctor had invited the author to come and see his laboratory. Stevenson was currently occupied with his second essay for Scribner’s Magazine, “The Lantern Bearers.” As Chalmers tells it in his “Penny Piper” book:

“Still aglow with the high thoughts of ‘Lantern Bearers,’ Stevenson put on his buffalo coat and hurried away through the snow.The sight of the grave scientist bending over his work in that strange place of crucibles and tubes stirred the dreamer’s enthusiasm afresh. Here was the thought materialized — the man with the bull’s-eye, who was thinking less of fame than of the moment’s task allotted …’ Now Trudeau,’ said he, ‘let me see your light!’ Dr. Trudeau picked up a tube containing a sickly-looking liquid. ‘The scum you see in this tube,’ said he, ‘is consumption. It’s the cause of more human suffering than anything else in the world. If we can produce tuberculosis in the guinea-pig, this great burden of human suffering might be lifted from the world.’ … With a bottle in his hand, Trudeau turned to his very silent companion and found that Robert Louis Stevenson had vanished! Astounded and puzzled, the medical scientist laid down his charts and went in search of the Penny Piper. He found him in the open air, leaning on a post and looking very pale. Trudeau, rushing to his side, said, ‘Stevenson, are you ill?’ Swallowing hard, Stevenson said, ‘N-no.’ Said Trudeau, ‘You don’t look well. How do you feel?’ Said Stevenson, with a brave but sickly smile, ‘Trudeau, I know your lamp is bright, but to me it smells of oil like the devil!'”

Needless to say, Louis never returned to his friend’s laboratory. Neither did he take the doctor’s advice to quit chain-smoking cigarettes and stay in Saranac Lake. Instead, Stevenson headed west in the spring of 1888 and would die far, far away six-and-a-half years later, “where the golden apples grow.” Trudeau kept working until his fuel ran out, extinguishing his light in 1915, only two weeks after the unveiling of the R.L. Stevenson Memorial plaque at Baker’s.

Dr. Trudeau was in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1910, when, as president of the eighth Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, he delivered some of his best philosophy in an address entitled “The Value of Optimism in Medicin.” It was long, and this is how he ended it:

“Let us not, therefore, quench the faith nor turn from the vision which, whether we own it or not, we carry, as Stevenson’s lantern bearers their lanterns, hidden from the outer world; and, thus inspired, many will reach the goal; and if for most of us our achievements must fall short of our ideals, if when age and infirmity overtake us ‘we come not within sight of the castle of our dreams,’ nevertheless, all will be well with us; for, as Stevenson tells us rightly, ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in the labor.'”


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