Ott in a Hurry

Sometime in the sixties I noticed several boxes of letterhead stationery that my father had ordered for his home office. At the top he put this self-description: “A. C. Guyton – Builder.” I found it a little puzzling. My father was a physiologist who left early every morning for the medical school, spending his daytime hours in the lab and the classroom. He was a writer who authored a world-renowned medical textbook. Yet according to the stationery he considered himself to be a builder.

Kate & Billy Guyton children 2
Guyton children, circa 1924. From left, Bill, Ruth, Jack, and Ott

But this is getting ahead of the story. Everyone in Oxford, Mississippi, where Arthur Guyton grew up, knew him simply as “Ott.” “Ott” was how Bill Guyton as a toddler mispronounced his baby brother’s name. Somehow it seemed to fit, and it stuck.


Ott was the third of 4 children of Dr. Billy and Mrs. Kate Guyton, following brothers Jack and Bill and preceding sister Ruth. He was born in 1919 just after a terrible worldwide flu epidemic and one year after the armistice ending World War I.


Dr. Billy founded the Guyton Clinic for Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat in Oxford in 1915. He and Kate, a former Methodist missionary, had settled into a large pre-Civil War house at 1101 S. Lamar Street, the main thoroughfare leading to Water Valley and other points south.

The Guyton children had every advantage afforded by economic security, warmth of family relations and friends in a small community, and intellectual stimulation in a university town. Their mother had taught math and physics on the far side of the earth in Suzhou, China. She encouraged all 4 children in academics, especially science, and facilitated their progress.




Ott looks contemplative in the picture at left, but he was almost always on the go. One day Kate heard horrified scolding from her housekeeper and cook, Mary Cobb, as Mary pulled the young boy through the back yard toward the house. Walking along a back street, Ott had spotted one of the few automobiles in Oxford coming toward him. He waited until the last second, then dashed across the narrow street in front of the car.


“I did it! I did it! I beat that car across the street!” he shouted to the terrified Mary.

Ott faced his mother’s discipline and disappointment, and in the evening his father’s. Whipping with a leather belt was reserved for older children, but it was probably discussed.[1]

From a later interview comes this description of early life in Oxford:

“We had a good deal of land around our house when I was a very small boy, and there was a pasture around the back where we kept a horse, and had a chicken yard with chicken houses, and so forth. By the time I got to be about four, five, or six years old, we gave up most of that, and I turned one of those chicken houses into a shop. So beginning at the age of seven or eight, I always had a shop.”

The interviewer asked, “You were always building things, weren’t you?”

“Yes, I liked to make things. At first it was all woodworking. Later on, I had access to some metalworking tools, and still later on, when I got into medical school, I worked all through on a student fellowship in the biochemistry department with Dr. Hastings.”[2]

The novelist and Hollywood screen writer William Faulkner lived about 4 blocks away, at the end of a double row of red cedars in a 2-story house called Rowan Oak. On occasion, Mr. Bill told ghost stories to the neighborhood children. Ott and others sat before him captivated by the scary tales, especially one that embellished the true story of a young woman who fell or perhaps jumped from the balcony of Rowan Oak, breaking her neck and dying on the spot.

Young Ott and a friend made plans to stay up all night by the poor girl’s grave on an anniversary of the tragedy, perchance to see her ghost, but his mother found out about it and nixed the idea.

ott-about-11-jerusha-bosarge-book-2Ott did well in school. He built a crystal radio with which he could listen to news, music, and variety shows from Memphis, sometimes from St. Louis. By his senior year of high school, his teachers felt they had little further to challenge him. They helped him obtain books on electronics and physics, complemented by periodic appointments with professors at the University.


Crystal radio

With their parents’ blessing, Ott and his brothers put weedkiller down on a corner of the large backyard, acquired a heavy push roller to smooth and compact the natural clay soil, put up chicken wire for backstops, and so built a tennis court. It worked fine until the weather turned rainy, when drainage became a problem. He had innate athletic ability and learned tennis well enough to reach the championship game of the state tournament, taking pride in his runner-up spot the rest of his life.

At some point early in his teens Ott stopped going to Sunday School and church. Increasing awareness of science influenced him greatly. Decades later as an adult he kept a time-worn copy of Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom on a living room bookshelf tucked among volumes on physics, electronics, and physiology. He might have inherited some skepticism from Dr. Billy, who embraced Unitarian beliefs and secretly joined the local Unitarian church, never telling his wife Kate. Her Methodist faith remained strong, but it seems that her mind had opened to other viewpoints based on 5 years of exposure to Chinese wisdom, both ancient and progressive.

Ott enjoyed warm friendships with most of his classmates, many of them sons and daughters of professors at Ole Miss. His dating relationships sometimes broke off, however, because of his agnosticism. He once recalled being told by an attractive girl that she didn’t want to fall in love with a boy who was going to hell.

He kept a strong sense of traditional morality. Having seen the consequences of alcoholism and wanting to set an example for his children, he would remain a teetotaler throughout his life.[3]

He enjoyed people at all stages and levels of life, and he felt that all should be treated with equal respect. He had genuine friends among the black community, bringing them in on building and repair projects, helping at times of distress. He was able to see himself in the place of the other person, although his ideas about race were influenced by Darwinism.

Ott’s sense of engagement, struggle, and triumph in life was shaped to no small extent by William Faulkner. Much later in life, giving a speech to an honor society at Ole Miss, Ott listed Faulkner among 4 chief mentors in his life – the other 3 being medical scientists – in addition to his parents.

A family story tells about an eccentric Oxford man who knocked on the front door of the Guyton home on a cold dark evening with rain pouring down. When Kate opened the door, she saw him standing in his raincoat under the shelter of the porch roof, somewhat unsteady with alcohol on his breath. “Ms. Kate, I wonder if you could help Estelle and me. Would you happen to have a cup of Karo syrup?” “I think so,” she answered. “Do come in and warm yourself. Just leave the raincoat on the porch.” He replied, “I really shouldn’t do that. Let me just wait here.”

Whether it was a match of intellect, interest in human foibles and progress, or shared iconoclasm, Ott became a young friend of William Faulkner. They played chess on the porch at Rowan Oak, croquet with family in the large yard.

When Faulkner took an interest in flying, Ott and other teenagers would travel with him to Memphis to rise above the earth with him. Faulkner bought a red Waco C cabin cruiser, an elegant single engine, 4-seater biplane (similar to header image). Once Ott took off with him from the new Oxford airfield – a pasture modified by tossing the cow paddies off to either side of the “runway.” Facing a stiff breeze, the 60-horsepower engine lifted the wood-and-fabric airplane into the air. About half a mile from the field, the engine suddenly stopped. A novice pilot learns in such an instance to look ahead for a landing spot, and never attempt to turn and go back to the runway. Momentum and lift will not carry a coasting airplane with a dead engine back to the launching point. But all pilots were novices then. Faulkner made the turn. After half a minute stretching to eternity, Faulkner jerked back on the stick, and they jumped over a ditch and barbed wire fence to land on the end of the runway. The strong wind had saved them.

William Faulkner later gave that airplane to his youngest brother Dean, who suffered a fatal, unexplained crash while barnstorming near Pontotoc, Mississippi.

Near the end of the 1930s Ott began to build a sailboat for the new reservoir called Sardis Lake filling up just west of Oxford. In Ott’s words quoted by biographer Carroll Brinson,

“On many days, William Faulkner would pass by, stop and carry on a long conversation. From books, he had learned all the nautical terms, terms that I didn’t know, and terms describing different parts of the sailboat. He would talk about the “rabbet” here and the “keel” here and the “transom” there, and so forth….

“When I completed the boat, I invited Mr. Bill to sail with me on occasion, and again, we all reveled in his discussion of the art of sailing. I don’t think he had actually sailed ever before, but he knew all about it from the books he had read or studied. He enjoyed those outings on Sardis Lake.”[4]

Sometime later, Faulkner bought the sailboat for $300 from his younger friend. It was a pastime safer than flying.

Ott renamed himself Arthur when he arrived at Harvard Medical School in 1939, following a path first taken by his oldest brother Jack. He quickly moved beyond the standard curriculum to take an interest in research. He wanted to work with Dr. Walter Cannon, the renowned physiologist who coined the term “fight or flight response” for the sympathetic nervous system, but Cannon was seriously ill. Instead Arthur engaged the interest of Dr. Baird Hastings in Biochemistry and was able to pursue his own theory of measuring ion concentrations by electrodeposition on metal surfaces. In the Biochemistry Department, he also had access for the first time to a metal turning lathe and other machine tools. Experience gained with these tools led Arthur later to create new devices for measuring blood pressure, tissue fluid pressure, and oxygen levels in blood and respired air.

Arthur Guyton had a gift for making the most of his time and place in life. He had reason to think he might not live to see retirement and old age. Four male relatives on his mother’s side, including his grandfather, had died from heart attacks in their 40s. It’s likely that they all had very high blood cholesterol, but tests for cholesterol were not available then. For all he knew, he might have inherited the faulty gene. He pushed himself, working long and hard to achieve something worthwhile as soon as he could, making his contribution to the welfare of fellow human beings.

He put things in perspective. Shortly before he died, he told me that within 50 years his accomplishments would fade. If he never lived, he said, someone else would surely make the discoveries he had made. For his actual effort in the world, the only difference after 50 years would be a footnote in the history of progress in physiology.

But that did not matter. The excitement of being the first human to understand and verify a physiologic mechanism, the sharing of that discovery with colleagues and students, and the opening of young minds to useful, well-organized knowledge gave him plenty of incentive. His time and place were enough. Instinctively he recognized what Martin Heidigger has called dasein.


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Featured image:  Waco UIC biplane from the 1930s, by FlugKerl2 – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons. Guyton children and photos of Ott, family photos. Crystal radio, by JA Davidson, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

[1] I believe it was my grandfather, Billy Guyton, who told me this version of the story. According to Jerusha Bosarge in her book, Inventing Ott, little Ott did not win the race, but was hit and suffered multiple leg fractures, which fortunately healed completely. Jerusha might have the more accurate version, but it doesn’t quite fit with the quote that I remember, “I beat that car across the street!”

[2] Weisse, Allen B. Heart to Heart, the Twentieth Century Battle against Cardiac Disease: An Oral History. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 2002, p. 117.

[3] In later life, as Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, he decided that the new fad of taking coffee breaks was a waste of time, and he outlawed them. His edict did not last.

[4] Brinson, Carroll, with Janice Quinn. Arthur C. Guyton – His Life, His Family, His Achievements. Oakdale Press, Jackson, MS, 1989, p. 34.

Other sources:

Bosarge, J. Inventing Ott: the Legacy of Arthur C. Guyton. Quail Ridge Press, Brandon, MS, 2005.

Wells, Dean Faulkner. Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi. Crown, New York, 2011.

Quinn, Janis. Promises Kept: The University of Mississippi Medical Center. University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, 2005.

4 thoughts on “Ott in a Hurry

  1. What a wonderful story and remembrance of one’s father. John, you certainly have gained a new reader and fan. I was totally captivated reading your work and truly felt a personal closeness with the words and story as I read. What a wonderful father! And what a wonderful remembrance, John. Thank you.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. I met your dad once in high school and was pretty much in awe. I used to go sit and dream on Faulkner’s porch on sunny afternoons when a student at Ole Miss. What a fun connection with your family. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

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