This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.
RAFFAELE LATTES DIRECTED THE SURGICAL PATHOLOGY LABORatory at P&S and Presbyterian from 1951 to 1978, the date of his mandatory retirement. Named professor emeritus, he remained as teacher and consultant for many more years. During that time surgical pathology underwent many changes in organization both locally and nationally: All this is spelled out in detail and entertainingly in publications cited in the acknowledgments section. This profile tells the story of Lattes' contribution, an account of stellar performance against odds that could have stemmed only from a character, personality, and abilities that were harmoniously integrated to an extraordinary degree.
He was born in 1910 in Italy, then a monarchy where Mussolini would take power in 1922 and invade Ethiopia in 1935-36. His hometown was Turin, a large industrial city famous for automobiles. He came from an old Italian Jewish family, established about 1498. Lattes had a thorough humanistic education in the public schools of Turin. Entering Turin's medical school in 1927, he graduated in 1933 summa cum laude, having worked on soft tissue tumors, which became an abiding interest. In the laboratory "he worked like a slave counting mitoses." He served as a clinical surgeon at the medical school and won the equivalent of U.S. board certification in surgery in 1938. With his left hand, so to speak, he continued lab studies on human tumors. Around this time Italy's Fascist government adopted the tightening racial laws of Nazi Germany; restrictions meant he could no longer practice medicine except among Jews. Lattes would have stayed in Italy as other members of his family did, but his wife, Eva, who was of German Jewish extraction, risked repatriation to Germany. Rejecting all this, Dr. and Mrs. Lattes, "with a sense of adventure like climbing a mountain from a side never climbed before," immigrated to the United States.
At first Lattes worked in local hospitals in metropolitan New York City, New York suburbs, and Philadelphia, but he had negative experiences that gave him a bad taste for American surgical practice, so in 1943 he came to Columbia where he remained most of the rest of his life.
He began with experimental surgery and taught in the second-year surgery course, but then switched to pure surgical pathology, diagnostic and investigative. Main areas of interest were diseases of soft tissue and many kinds of neoplasia. With growing expertise, he developed a wide practice in diagnostic surgical pathology and became famous as a consultant, with appointments at 30 or so hospitals in the NYC area and earning a reputation for his meticulous technical skill, a passion for accuracy, and unshakable scientific integrity. His memory for esoteric lesions became legendary. Once, he caught himself in a published error: He had made a diagnosis of granulomatous thymoma which turned out to be a thymoma infiltrated by Hodgkin's disease. Lattes agonized over this and abjectly apologized in print.
Two of his research contributions stand out. With Virginia K. Frantz he developed "Oxycel" as a topical hemostatic agent during World War II. With members of Medicine's rheumatology group, Lattes studied an important effect of anti-inflammatory corticosteroids: the inhibition of wound healing. Other areas of study included experiments with tissue culture, tumors of the upper GI tract, the mediastinum, the breast, and many aspects of malignant melanoma. He became a highly effective teacher of surgical pathology residents and fellows. He took great pains to keep up with new developments in technology, electron microscopy and immunohistopathology to name only two.
As a teacher, Lattes' outstanding qualities included his humor probably the main reason he was universally liked, even beloved. The writer misguidedly asked an informant to pass on some of Lattes' many jokes. "It didn't work that way. The humor always just came out of the conversation." Another item in Lattes' history that came to light late in the preparation of this article is that in his early years, before he was married, he was a committed mountaineer, an Alpinist long before that became a popular sport. He and his companions climbed most of the climbable peaks of the neighboring Alps, very close to Turin in the extreme northwest corner of Italy. He and his friends took many risks. Lattes said that most of his fellow climbers were now dead (see Lattes' remark above where he equated immigrating to the United States with climbing a mountain from a side not climbed before).
His last years were clouded by two family tragedies. His elder son Conrad (P&S'63, a surgeon at St. Luke's), died suddenly at age 50, probably of acute myocardial infarction. After this, Lattes soldiered on, but even years later his eyes would fill at the mention of Conrad's name. Later, his wife died slowly of dementia. Some years after that he returned to Italy, either to enjoy the company of a surviving brother or, as some friends think, to die on Italian soil. Ironically, his brother died soon after Lattes' arrival. An account of a visit to Dr. Lattes in Turin by his student and colleague, Marianne Wolff'52, is given in the John Jones Surgical Society Newsletter, Vol. 7, #2, Fall 2004. Dr. Wolff found Dr. Lattes depressed but she was able to cheer him up. He died three years later.
Raffaele Lattes made a unique contribution to this medical school. A square man, blonde, blue-eyed, with sharply marked features, he exemplified a perfect blend of scientist and humanist: a whole man.
The writer thanks Marianne Wolff'52, who gave time and thoughtful information, and Dr. Lattes' son, Robert Lattes'69, who provided essential biographical facts. More detail about the history of surgical pathology at Columbia can be found in Columbia's archives and in the Department of Surgery's "A Proud Heritage: An Informal History of Surgery at Columbia University" by F.P. Herter and A. Jaretzki, 2003, and in a history of American surgical pathology edited by J. Rosai.