Seasons change

WN/MT September 4, 2020
Truths & mousetraps.
2450 words


This September feels different. It’s no longer just a matter of seasonal daylight contraction, but also a fact of social shrinkage and much more. Summer 2020 was unlike any before and academics this autumn, from pre-school through medical school, will also be totally different. Innovation is in demand to navigate the crises in business, education, medical practice, public policy, sports, and much of everything else in daily life. The good news is that humans are good at creating new and better mousetraps, although not so good at escaping the mental mousetraps of their own follies. [Above: September ground litter, Scio Township 2018.]

Hunkering down in the first weeks of this 2020 Covid pandemic, I reread Howard Markel’s book, When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashed. Written in 2004 it holds up very well now, 16 years later, offering pandemic perspective. Howard, shown above, has frequent pieces on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), maintains the 1918 Influenza Epidemic Encyclopedia in a UM Digital Archive (, has a recent Medical Dispatch in the on-line New Yorker Newsletter (August 6, 2020), and a new book on genetics, called Helix, in the works.

Lessons learned from past infectious disasters tend to be forgotten. Face-masks, hygienic measures, social distancing, and validated vaccines unquestionably mitigate transmission and acquisition of germs – medical scientists and the informed public know this much is true, but why doesn’t everyone else?

Weaponization of those protections, particularly the ridiculously easy solutions of face masks and social distancing, as political gestures is sadly bizarre. Whether it’s a matter of ludditism, partisan ideology, or mere ignorance will be sorted out by future social critics. As a person who wore face masks in operating rooms for nearly 50 years – alongside uncounted colleagues, nurses, and scrub techs – the claims of “medical reasons” why some people “can’t wear a mask” are incredulous – as unconvincing as claims of pet snakes or birds as “medically-necessary” travel companions on airplanes. The parallel contention that the duty to wear masks violates personal freedom is certainly a far cry from anything reasonably derived from common sense or the American Constitution. It’s not surprising that similar skirmishes sprung up with the Great Influenza epidemic in 1918, when education and science had not quite universally settled the germ theory in minds, but it is astonishing to find such shenanigans a full century later. [Below: mask-wearers at University Hospitals, senior medical student Annie Minns and professors Cosmas Van De Ven and David Spahlinger – social distancing briefly waived for the photo op, Aug. 2020.]


Basic truths. Mousetraps for infectious diseases have come and gone, but routine hygiene and simple impediments to germ transmission (face masks & distancing) seem to be basic truths.

Historical medical relics were facts once true for their times. The iron lung for the respiratory failure of polio was a “better mousetrap” in the 1930s through the 1950s. The original iron lung used two vacuum cleaners to change pressure in an iron chamber, compressing and inflating chests and lungs of children lying within them. Philip Drinker (1894-1972), teacher of industrial illumination and ventilation at Harvard Medical School (alongside famed UMMS graduate Alice Hamilton), came up with a popular design, the “Drinker Lung.” Haven Emerson (1906-1997), son of NYC Health Commissioner, improved the device by placing the patient in a bellows within the chamber. Emerson’s Iron Lung was quieter, lighter and only $1,000, half the price of others. It remained in production until 1970, when polio largely had disappeared from much of the planet due to vaccination. Coincidentally this is a good opportunity to refer to Markel again. [H. Markel. “The genesis of the iron lung,” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 1994; 148 (11): 1174-1180.]

Polio outbreaks were dreaded in the summer. As a child, I noticed post-polio limps in many people and heard about iron lungs, seemingly ubiquitous in every hospital. The July newsletter, Matula Thoughts, referred to our friend and colleague Skip Campbell who was hospitalized at “old” University Hospital as a youngster to treat his polio. That was just around the time polio began to disappear when field trails of Salk’s vaccine, directed from UM by Thomas Francis, proved it “safe, effective, and potent” in 1955. The Sabin vaccine soon proved better. Oddly, U.S. authorities supported only the Salk clinical trial, and Sabin had to prove his vaccine in field trials in the Soviet Union. This was no small feat in the political theater and Cold War of the 1950s, but Sabin, against the grain, organized the trials and the world ran to his better vaccine. Even now, however, global polio eradication is incomplete. [L. Roberts, Science, 367:14, 2020.]

Situational necessity, inspiration, and competition fuel better medical mousetraps, but innovations happen best in open societies. Iron lungs were useful in their times but gave way to better innovations. Modern respiratory physiology knowledge and more sophisticated ventilatory technology sprang from other responses to polio. [J. West. “The physiological challenges of the 1952 Copenhagen poliomyelitis epidemic and a renaissance in clinical respiratory physiology,” J. Appl Physiol (2005); 99:424-432.] So once again, let’s celebrate democracy and free speech: innovation -with its validation, dissemination, and improvement – thrive best in the fertile social soil of personal freedom and open expression.


Mousetraps.  “If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.” Such is the power of “the market” at large, whether the market is commercial or intellectual. Flat Earth maps may lead some mousetrap-seekers astray, but most people find their ways to better ideas and technologies. [Above: Conventional Victor Mousetraps at Barnes Ace Hardware two for $1.69 vs. Intruder’s Better Mousetrap two for $5.99.]

Ralph Waldo Emerson (above), the source of the phrase, actually wrote:

“If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house though it be in the woods.”

Emerson knew something about paths in woods, not only living among them, but also hiring Henry David Thoreau as his property caretaker when the journalist of Walden Pond needed a paying job. A future tenuous connection between Emerson and Ann Arbor materialized after James Elliott Cabot (below), Emerson’s friend, executor, and biographer, fathered Hugh Cabot, who instigated the first century of Michigan Urology in 1919. “Elliott” Cabot (1821-1903, shown below), as he was known, was a brother of Dr. Samuel Cabot III and shares facial physiognomy with at least three of his sons: Michigan’s first urologist Hugh Cabot, twin brother Philip, and internist brother Richard Clark Cabot.


Medicine has had its share of mousetraps. Enduring diagnostic tools from antiquity  – the medical history, physical examination, rudimentary vital signs, and uroscopy (body fluid observation) – have been tested and refined in medical marketplaces over millennia. For urine inspection, pottery gave way to glass matulas, microscopes extended visual inspection into the microscopic world, chemical analysis opened up molecular composition of urine, and bacteriology led to identification of pathogens. Innovation similarly propelled stethoscopes (1816), x-rays (1896), electrocardiograms (1920s), CAT scans (1970s), and MRIs (in wide use after 2000) into the clinical marketplace. The technology of modern urology is too rich a topic for further mention here, except to take note of Nesbit’s transurethral resection of the prostate, Lapides’s clean intermittent catheterization, and McGuire’s leak point pressure.

Amidst high-tech mousetraps of today, the simple face mask used in ORs around the world is clearly effective against dust and infectious droplets (liquid dust). A recent JAMA article by Brooks, Butler, and Redfield, suggests we implement universal masking for all healthcare workers and patients in clinical situations, affording both personal protection and source control. Aerosol particles range from sub micrometers (0.0001) to a full ten micrometers (microns) in diameter. By the way, 1000 microns equals 1 millimeter. Even simple cloth face coverings substantially limit forward dispersion of exhaled respirations in the 1-10 microgram range. [JAMA 324:635, 2020.]   [Above: ORs & face masks in Mainz, Germany. Below: airborne particles, source – Wikipedia, Particles. Horizontal axis in micrometers, or microns.] 

A higher level of filtration than routine face masks, the N95 mask, was designed to meet the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) specification of filtering at least 95% of airborne particles. To be fully effective, it requires “fit-testing,” an annual ritual at Michigan Medicine along with the TB testing, that few knew would become so useful in these Covid times. [Below: N95 mask.]

Some people, mainly constitutional textualists and originalists, claim that governmental agencies such as NIOSH were not “intended” by the Founding Fathers, who could hardly have known about aerosols, viruses, or the Internet. Yet the Founders surely knew that knowledge, technology, and monetary systems were changing the world and would continue to do so – Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton most certainly among them. Enough Founders anticipated that American governmental regulation and American free enterprise would need to work in tandem to support the foundational principles of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and First Amendment protections. The NIOSH agency derives from any reasonable interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The global nature of human challenges, even for a matter so small as dust particles, is stunning. Airborne dust, solid or liquid, has no national boundaries. A NASA global simulation of aerosol transportation in the troposphere over 12 months beginning 17 August 2006, takes about two minutes to watch and will expunge any notions of national exceptionalism. This video clip shows that the recent African dust storm this year was no anomaly.
[Title: Atmospheric Aerosol Eddies and Flows – NASA GSFC S.ogv
Author: NASA. Date: 1 January 2008, 23:17:03]

On the other hand, the Covid component of respiratory aerosols is fortunately not very durable in time or distance. Infectivity seems to drop off after 6 feet or some number of hours. Otherwise, the above NASA animation would be very alarming in the face of this pandemic. Furthermore, the best evidence indicates that long-range transmission of small-particle aerosols (<5 micrometers) is not the dominant mode of Covid infection. Close-range respiratory droplets (large aerosol particles >5 micrometers) is the far more likely threat, easily thwarted by face masks and a little distance. [M. Klompas et al, JAMA, 324:441, 2020.] 


Thermometry, a mainstay in the armamentarium of medical mousetraps, is a hot topic these days. Curiously, the fact of “normal human temperature” is not clear and some authorities believe that “normal” has been dropping. One wonders if normal temperature for communities of Inuit people living near the Arctic Circle is the same as “normal” of equatorial people, or could normal in infants be the same as for octogenarians? We don’t treat pulse or blood pressure with the same strict exactitude for all people, so why is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit held to such precision, even though we know it’s variability in health is narrower than other physiologic parameters? Epigenetic response to modern life (industrialization, central heating, air conditioning, air pollution, global warming, etc.) surely influences the “normal” core human temperatures. Time of day, season, and age must matter as well. The site, method, and precision of measurement also effect any number obtained.

The “normal” of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit traces back to Carl Wunderlich (1815-1877), a German physician who questioned things (above, per Wikipedia). In 1868 he proposed 37 degrees Celsius as normal after studies using a foot-long thermometer, requiring upwards of 20 minutes to register the temperature. Surgeons may recall the term Wunderlich Syndrome, a nontraumatic surgical emergency of spontaneous retroperitoneal hemorrhage that may be caused by renal neoplasms. Mackowiak, Wasserman, and Levine in 1992, updated Wunderlich’s number. [JAMA 268:1578-80, 1992]. Newer studies suggest that “normal” human temperature has dropped by 0.59 degrees centigrade for men and 0.32 degrees centigrade for women. Urologists and zoologists know that core body temperature is a few degrees too warm for optimal testicular function in man, along with many other species, hence the “social distancing” of their placement. Evolutionary biologists may want to take note that as core body temperatures decrease, there may be no thermal reason for human testes to descend, which may severely limit the market for pediatric urologists. Kangaroos, and other creatures too, may have to adjust their testicular placement to accommodate themselves to a warmer planet (their bifid penile anatomy, caudal to the gonads, is stranger still.) [Below, Wikimedia, photographer and kangaroo unknown.]

Crises test all creatures, from viruses to humankind, forcing epigenetic changes that allow adaptation and evolution not only of individuals, but also their societies. Homo sapiens has taken this force of nature to unprecedented levels, but just as every new era brings out innovation, each challenge uncovers new generations of Flat Earthers who retreat to comforting beliefs, dogmas, and ideologies. In the arc of human progress, truth usually wins out and each crisis finds its own necessary technologies, although the arc of progress is not smooth, but often wobbly and intermittently retrograde.


Summer reading. Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is a timely book. The title riffs on the first two lines and pun of Shakespeare’s 1593 play, Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” John Steinbeck echoed this in 1961 in the title of his final novel. Coincidentally, my summer reading also included the historical novel, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, that imagined the lost life of Shakespeare’s only son (1585-1596). [Below: Title page First Quatro, Richard III.]

Caste (above) considers social and political power, but Wilkerson begins the book with “The afterlife of pathogens,” an astonishing coincidence with today’s pandemic news and world-wide political discontents. This first chapter describes a heat wave in the summer of 2016 that thawed Siberian permafrost and liberated anthrax spores from long-dead reindeer, thus causing a new epidemic in living reindeer and their indigenous herders, the Nedet people. Wilkerson then links that pathogen awakening to current political awakenings around the world.

“The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life.”

Coincidences. G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), English writer and author of the Father Brown priest-detective books, called coincidences spiritual puns. A less spiritual person than Chesterton might call coincidences cosmic puns or stochastic puns, but the idea is the same: unrelated but concurrent events or facts may seem to have been “divinely ordered” or happen “by the luck of the draw.” Chesterton’s actual quote comes from his book, Irish Impressions, in 1919, a year that coincides with the start of the first century of urology at the University of Michigan:

 “All literary style, especially national style, is made up of such coincidences; which are a spiritual sort of puns. That is why style is untranslatable; because it is possible to render the meaning, but not the double meaning.”

Considering this first half of 2020, random chance is due to favor better luck in pathogens.

Thanks for reading Matula Thoughts this Labor Day, 2020.
Best wishes,
David A. Bloom

A century and a millennium

DAB Matula Thoughts October 4, 2019

A century and a millennium

Michigan urology begins its centennial celebration
2087 words


But first, consider what happened in 1623. Horace Davenport, the great American physiologist, University of Michigan educator, and de facto historian of the Medical School asked that question when he introduced physiology to a class of medical students. This story has been told here before, but it deserves repetition for each new generation of trainees as well as for the rest of us, who tend to forget Davenport’s lesson. The prize for the correct answer, Davenport said, would be an “A” for the class with no further expectations – no attendance, no labs, no homework, or exams.

The medical students scrambled with answers, all erroneous and some ridiculous, but no one came close to the correct one – the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623. After the playwright died in 1616, friends collected his works, many printed in smaller books called quartos, and they published the First Folio, actually titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. This consisted of 38 plays and over 150 poems, in addition to Shakespeare’s portrait by Martin Droeshout, one of two authentic images of the author. Of the 750 copies printed, 223 survive and 82 are in the Folger Collection in Washington, DC.
Davenport’s point was that the practice of medicine doesn’t play out in isolation, it is part of the context of life, the unique circumstances of humanity with its individual stories, dramas, aspirations, co-morbidities, and accomplishments. William Shakespeare’s work encompassed the range and depth of the human condition more completely than any artist before or since.

Before learning physiology, much less practicing medicine, Davenport claimed, the human condition must be studied to the extent best possible by each of us although the “self-awareness” of humanity as a species can never be complete. Self-awareness requires some sense of time and place, and these senses are enhanced by knowledge of history. The history we each know may be reality or mythical, a distinction that good historians just as good scientists work to discern. The arts help navigate the ambiguities of that distinction.



And what happened in 1919? One hundred years ago, Hugh Cabot, Michigan’s first urologist and new chair of the surgery department arrived in Ann Arbor and performed his first operative procedures at the University of Michigan. Cabot’s first specific urologic cases in Ann Arbor have not yet been identified, but a letter in the papers of UM President HB Hutchins of 1919 explains the successful appendectomy on a patient known to and likely referred by Hutchins “in the Surgical Clinic October 13.” This was Cabot’s second day at work and he helpfully told Hutchins:

“Since the operation patient has progressed very satisfactorily and we see no reason why he should not make an uneventful recovery. Twenty-four hours later this case would have been a complicated one, and the prognosis would not have been as hopeful.”

The letter was typed on stationary that read: University of Michigan, Department of Surgery, University Hospital (nearly identical to what this senior author found on arrival to the Medical School and Hospital 65 years later, although the names were different). The faculty listed in 1919 were C.G. DARLING. M.D. GENERAL SURGERY; I.D. LOREE. M.D. GENITO-URINARY SURGERY, C.L. WASHBURN. M.D. ORTHOPEDIC SURGERY; AND C.J. LYONS. D.D.Sc. CONSULTING DENTIST.

Ira Dean Loree was Michigan’s principal genitourinary surgeon up until that time in the small Surgical Department, although his senior, CG Darling, also did work in that emerging subspecialty as well. If stationary is to reflect mindset, neither Darling nor Loree embraced the new terminology of urology, the neologism of Ramon Guiteras in play since the formation of the American Urological Association in 1902 (of which Cabot had been president in 1911) and embraced by Cabot in his influential textbook Modern Urology in 1918.



A thought experiment. Given that Hugh Cabot came to Ann Arbor and introduced modern urologic practice to the University of Michigan a century ago, we might reflect upon what happened a century before then, in 1819, when the fledgling University of Michigan was only two years old. Not much was actually going on educationally in its initial Detroit site then and no medical school existed in the territory of Michigan, which was not yet a state.

The year 1819 brought the first major peacetime financial crisis in the United States and the Tallmadge Amendment that was passed in the House of Representatives, but got lost the next year in the Missouri Compromise. The amendment would have prohibited slavery in the impending statehood of Missouri, but got traded away for the admission of Maine as a free state.
What about 1719, 300 years ago? The world was being mapped with increasing realism and imagination. Herman Moll’s “codfish map,” A New and Correct Map of the Whole World in London was a step along the way to visualization of the political and geographical reality of the planet. Also that year Robinson Crusoe, was published, arguably the first English novel, a fictional account of an actual event.

Slavery began in the American colonies a century earlier, it was in August 1619 according to the illuminating 1619 Project, a partnership of the Pulitzer Center and the New York Times. The Idea of America, an essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is informed and provocative. [NYT Magazine. August 18, 2019. The 1619 Project.]

Five hundred years back in time, on 20 September 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan began his trip that would circumnavigate the planet, thereby quieting down the Flat Earth enthusiasts of the time, although that stubborn phenotype reappears in alternative forms, notably, the climate change deniers of today. Magellan had five ships, two more than Columbus, and carried supplies for 270 men and two years. In spite of mutiny, desertion, catastrophic storms, starvation, and raids from local natives, Magellan made it to the Philippines by March, 1521, where he was killed in battle by natives who resisted his offer of religious conversion. Other officers took charge and a single ship made it back to Spain on 6 September 1522. Leadership lessons still abound.

In 1419, during the Hundred Years War, France surrendered to Henry V and Normandy was re-annexed to England providing the nidus for Shakespeare’s great imaginative play 180 years later. Joan of Arc would have a fiery end in this town in 1431 and Charles VII, King of France, recaptured the city in 1449. A strong earthquake devastated the city of Ani in Armenia in 1319. A century earlier, in 1219, Genghis Khan sought advice on the Philosopher’s Stone from Qui Chuji (Taoist Master Changchun) and St. Francis of Assisi introduced Catholicism to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. Navigation was improved in 1119 by Chinese author Zhu Yu who described the innovative use of magnetic compass and separate hull compartments in ships. Japanese statesman Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028) retired from public life in 1019 after installing his son as regent, but remained behind the scenes as Japan’s de facto ruler until his death nine years later. In spite of the coincidence of pronunciation, however, there is no way to connect Michinaga to our State of Michigan today in October, 2019, more specifically than as bookends to a millennium of human stories and progress.

The point to this thought experiment is that matters of immediate moments pale in the grand scheme of human centuries and glacial millennia. Nevertheless, those momentary and seasonal concerns constrain most human attention. Our lives are framed by the past and moments of grand inspiration transcend the mundane times. King Henry V’s exhortation to his troops at Agincourt, as imagined by the Bard of Stratford, is as inspiring as George Gipp’s softer “Win one for the Gipper” speech before Army played Notre Dame in 1928, and portrayed by Ronald Reagan in the classic film Knute Rockne, All American, in 1940.



Autumn in Ann Arbor brings the excitement of new students, football, and the academic season of meetings and visiting professors. Marty Koyle came from Toronto (with provenance from the Brigham, Dallas, UCLA, Denver, and Seattle) last month as our visiting professor in pediatric urology. Marty is a great clinician, surgeon, and educator, and he is one of the few urologists today with an active practice in pediatric renal transplantation (in addition to the astonishing John Barry). Over three days Marty interacted with faculty and residents, leaving an indelible imprint. Courtesy of Julian Wan, we repaid Marty and his wife Ellen in part with the Michigan Football experience, witnessing a close struggle to defeat Army. [Above: Army on the defensive; Below: Marty at the Pediatric Urology Conference.]

The tradition of visiting professors was indoctrinated at Michigan in the time of Cabot, who himself shuttled among peer institutions and brought the best experts to Ann Arbor faculty and students, notably with strong relationships between the Mayo Clinic and St. Bartholomew’s in London. Cabot’s successors, Frederick Coller, Reed Nesbit, Jack Lapides, Ed McGuire, and those who followed, maintained the important tradition to expose our learners to the best surgical educators and ideas. [Below: Puneet Sindhwani, Department of Urology and Transplantation Chair, University of Toledo with Marty Koyle after Grand Rounds.]

[Above: Tailgate at Zingermans.]
Athletic traditions have been closely entwined in the academic mission, offering counterbalance from book-learning and clinical medicine. Performances, great or aspiring to greatness, entertain and serve as rallying points for institutional spirit. Even back in Cabot’s time, important conversations and political alignments took place on the sidelines as the following letter shows – when Cabot followed up to Governor Green (1927-1930, Republican):

“You may remember at the time of the Wisconsin Football Game you were kind enough to suggest that I write you after election concerning certain matters of medical interest which we discussed that day. Now that this turmoil of election is over I am taking the liberty of complying with your suggestion. …”

This was hardly a rare follow-up to social encounters at Michigan games.



A century of urology followed at the University of Michigan after Cabot’s arrival, directly impacting hundreds of thousands of patients, more than ten thousand medical students, and hundreds of residents – who in turn impacted their share of patients and learners. In that century, two world wars and other conflicts were fought, two major economic collapses occurred, and climatic and geologic catastrophes pummeled the planet. In the grand scheme of things, the particular story of urology at Michigan may be small, but it is our history to know and tell. Furthermore, some of the myriad stories within the larger story are instructive, many are inspiring, others are sobering, and all should be examined in context.

Today, October 4, 2019, our current departmental faculty, residents, nurses, clinical teams, research teams, staff, and alumni are gathered for the Nesbit Society events, culminating with the Michigan-Iowa gridiron contest, where, no matter the outcome, important conversations and good fun will be had at the tailgates and on the sidelines.



October factoids. On 16 October 1901, shortly after moving into the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt invited his adviser and friend Booker T. Washington (below), to dine with him and his family, provoking an outpouring of condemnation from southern politicians and press. No other African American was invited to dinner at the White House for almost thirty years.

Sinclair Lewis, author of Arrowsmith, a book modeled on the University of Michigan Medical School in the early 1900s, suffered a terrible personal loss this month in 1944, when his first son was killed during efforts to rescue the Lost Battalion.

The 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry (36th Infantry Division, originally Texas National Guard) had been surrounded by German forces in the French Vosges Mountains on October 24, 1944, and attempts by other troops failed to extricate the men. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans), ultimately was successful after 5 days of battle and rescued 211 men by October 30, but suffered more than 800 casualties. For size and length of service the 442nd is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Above is Wells Lewis with father and stepmother Dorothy Parker in 1935 on way to accept Nobel Prize. The death of Wells in France took place only nine years later.

131st Field Artillery, 36th Infantry Division (Texas National Guard of the U.S. Army) who were survivors of the sunken USS Houston. They were captured by Japanese forces and taken to Java in March 1942 and then sent to Singapore and Burma where they worked on railway construction crews, as later depicted in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was not until September of 1944 that it became known they were prisoners of war.

Thus went some highlights from the last century and the last millennium.

Thanks for reading Matula Thoughts.


David A. Bloom
University of Michigan, Department of Urology, Ann Arbor