Bassett and Other Memories

By John W. Severinghaus ’49

During WWII, I majored in physics at a Quaker college near Philadelphia. I was exempted from the draft because physicists were badly needed for secret work. In 1943 I joined the MIT Radiation Lab, developing radar test equipment. My project, a magnetron alignment meter, took too long and missed action at war’s end.

On Aug. 6, 1945, the atomic age began by vaporizing the people of Hiroshima. Appalled, I resigned from MIT, switched from physics to medicine, hoping to apply electronics to health care. It was too late to get into Harvard that fall. Wisconsin admitted me because its incoming military class cancelled. Physiology lab became my passion. Because Wisconsin’s third and fourth clinical years were all lectures, I transferred to P&S in 1947.

Electrophrenic respiratorMy third year of medicine started with a bang, assignment to an externship in Cooperstown, Bassett Hospital. It was one of three choices for third-year students (the others were New York City hospitals). The other rotating P&S extern in Cooperstown was Ann Davis, minister’s daughter from New Jersey, very attractive and skilled. Oh, Oh! Externs roomed on the top floor of the hospital. Ann and I enjoyed our month with hikes in the hills east of Lake Otsego and dancing on the lake shore on Saturday evenings. Administration decided it was unseemly for us to be in adjacent rooms, unsupervised, and moved some interns up with us. Nothing came of our attraction to each other. I was very impressed by the teaching skills of Joe Ferrebee. He was an internist who also was in charge of the clinical laboratory. The month ended too soon.

Stanley Sarnoff, visiting P&S from Harvard, described ventilation by electrical stimulation of one phrenic nerve with a skin surface electrode. I decided to build an electrophrenic respirator (EPS). My paper won the Borden student research award. I sold six of them to anesthesia departments for $80 each but it was a flop, useless compared to artificial ventilation.

Nargaf gas mixerGinni Apgar and I tried the EPS on a preemie, but to no avail. During a rotation in anesthesia, she gave me a three-minute demonstration of how to give ether and said, as she left, “Call me if you need help.”

During an OB rotation, I offered to give anesthesia during deliveries using a Nargraf gas mixer. I discovered that breathing 100 percent N2O gave very fast pain relief before cyanosis. Between contractions it allowed instant switching to 100 percent O2. That’s a lost art. Can’t be done with today’s machines with 70 percent limits on nitrous oxide. But it stimulated me to measure and publish the rate of uptake of N2O during anesthesia.

During a two-year internship at Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, N.Y., working with Joe Ferrebee, I developed a calcium measurement method using a flame photometer. My first paper was published in J Bio Chem.

My wife and I loved living in Cooperstown and I considered returning to Bassett as head of anesthesia when I finished anesthesia residency but the doctor draft sent me to NIH and five years later an offer from UCSF to join Julius Comroe’s new cardiovascular research institute and Stuart Cullen’s new Department of Anesthesiology took precedence.