Medicine: The Heart of Moby Dick

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Paul Dudley White was well drilled in the classics and the old-fashioned virtues at Boston's Roxbury Latin School. The son of a doctor, young Paul sometimes got to drive his father's horse & buggy. He soon knew that he meant to be a doctor himself; when his sister died of rheumatic fever, he began to focus his interest on heart diseases. Intern White was sent to England to buy the Massachusetts General Hospital's first electrocardiograph and learn to run the new-fangled thing. That was in 1913. Dr. White has been taking tracings of heart impulses ever since. He has gone on to become one of the world's top authorities on the classification and treatment of heart disease, and at his old school (Harvard) he has taught dozens of today's up & coming heart specialists.

For all his precise Yankee ways, Dr. White, now 66, is no man to be hidebound by conventions. So it was no surprise to his stuffier colleagues when his latest contribution to the New England Journal of Medicine was titled: "The Relation of Heart Size to the Time Intervals of the Heartbeat, with Particular Reference to the Elephant and the Whale." It included notes on the slow heartbeats and long electrocardiograph waves of nine circus elephants, and an account of Dr. White's whale hunt off Alaska last summer when he used harpoons as electrodes to get EKG readings of a wild, white (beluga) whale (TIME, Aug. 25).

Even as the Journal appeared, Dr. White was out .on another whale chase, off Southern California. This time all the whales (of a bigger species) got away, but Dr. White is determined to get a harpoon into one sometime soon. In his whale hunting, as in his study of circus elephants and mice, Dr. White has a serious purpose: to show that in human patients the "normal" range of heartbeats as measured by EKG time intervals must be widened to allow for differences in the size of the heart. A newborn baby's heart beats twice as fast as an adult's, and the different impulses within each beat are faster. Small whales have slower rates than big men. From the heart of Moby Dick, Dr. White hopes to extend his normal readings to the limit of the mammalian scale.

To Paul Dudley White in Boston this week went a special $1,000 Lasker Award for three decades of worldwide pioneering in the study and treatment of the heart. Accepting it, Dr. White made no mention of the whale. He went back to the ancient virtues. In this push-button age, he said, man is overeating and pampering himself. He should walk to work, ride a bicycle for exercise (as Dr. White still does), shovel snow up to the age of 70 or 80 if his heart is sound, and not be afraid of stairs even if his heart is no longer sound. "The life of Riley," Dr. White suspects, leads to a lot of early coronary disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.