Social-mindedness in World War II

Newly married in a time of war, Ruth gave attention to formidable questions of individuality and togetherness, trying to develop a workable Christian interpretation. Her husband Arthur joined the Navy. They moved to Maryland, where he entered a secret laboratory program at Fort Detrick.

Harvard Medical School had accelerated its curriculum when World War II began. Arthur Guyton began there in September 1939 and graduated in January or February 1943. He moved on to a surgical internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

He could handle the grueling routine of an intern, a work day averaging 16 hours, but the lack of time for study and experimentation bothered him. Especially vexing were problems that he felt he could fix, if only he had the time to get back in a shop. Long rubber tubes used for gastrointestinal suction, necessary when the bowels stopped working, continually became clogged. He figured that an intermittent suction device could avoid the clogging problem, but he didn’t get the chance to prove it until 2 years later.

Arthur learned to work fast and make quick decisions – maybe it’s not surprising that he proposed to Ruth Weigle within a month after their first real date. His intensity must have contributed to the mutual attraction.

wedding-more-contrast-3They married on June 12, 1943. It was a sunny day, an interlude of celebration for 2 families during a time of fear and loss for many caught in the devastation of World War II. Sugar, coffee, meats, and cheese for the nuptial events were purchased with ration coupons at prices frozen by the U.S. government.

After the wedding Ruth maintained contact with Wellesley College and Pine Manor Junior College. She led chapel services in the fall of 1943, emphasizing self-determination to the incoming Wellesley class. Here are some of her notes:

It is possible to go through Wellesley untouched, unchanged. I have seen it happen. For no external circumstances can determine the extent to which you will grow, only you yourselves. All the classes, lectures, concerts, and friends in the world cannot change you unless you are capable of change within yourself, unless you possess certain qualities of mind and heart and spirit. Without these qualities – and I think there are four of them, you will not make the most of these college years.

As in a previous talk, she urged sensitivity, purposefulness, expendability, and faith. The following remarks on sensitivity reflect her circumstances as well as responses to the war:

You cannot close your eyes to the rest of the world without losing your perspective. It is a keen temptation not to see, or to choose not to see. I am painfully aware of it every day, for my husband and I must live near one of Boston’s large hospitals in a poor and tenement section of the city. Our own apartment is set back from the street in a serene little courtyard that even boasts a fountain and that peculiar city variety of tree known as the tree of heaven. Yet outside the gate the street is crowded, noisy and dirty. I have to pick my way among flea-ridden, lean alley cats and unbelievably grimy little children who learned to cuff and curse at one another almost before they learned to walk. Flies swarm where the pushcarts and the garbage trucks are not fastidious. It is a temptation to walk quickly, to stop breathing, to look straight ahead – yet to refuse to recognize the reality there is altogether false and wrong. To be fully aware of reality often is painful, ugly – but we cannot shut ourselves off from the world or the war. To read the newspapers is a spiritual agony – the casualty lists, disasters at sea, the fierce and terrible struggles in the jungles of the South Pacific – we should like to escape from them, but we must not. Isolationism, God grant, is over… Sensitivity is the beginning of responsibility.

In a chapel service at Pine Manor, Ruth spoke about “social-mindedness,” both how we need it and how it can be dangerous for us –

If I were to ask you which you would prefer – to walk in these autumn woods each of you by herself or to make the same walk with 2 or 3 or a group of your friends, I’ll wager that 90% of you would choose companionship rather than being alone…. You and I, all of us, like to be with people, to do things with people. We seem to be by nature group-minded. In fact, we are often accused of never being by ourselves, of having forgotten how to develop resources within ourselves for living….

There is a danger that we may use restless activity and the constant companionship of other people to run away from ourselves. We may be actually afraid to be alone, lest we find ourselves inadequate, uninteresting, unsure. Too often we shrink from an honest meeting with ourselves, to seek refuge in the society of others, forgetting that to enjoy good companionship we must be ourselves first good companions.

But there is more wisdom than folly behind our social-mindedness. Fundamentally we like to be with people because we need to be, and we experience in their company satisfaction and strength which we do not find alone. We value the company of others for in it we discover reinforcement for our own individual daily living; joys shared increase; problems and grief lessen; we look upon the world with heightened perception, aware of new meanings. Many of our most uplifting moments, moments when we find fresh courage and direction and conviction for living, are moments spent in community.

And yet how slow we have been in this country to recognize our need for community in any sphere of activity besides pleasure or friendship. In our economic life we have been individualists to the extreme. Laissez-faire, each man for himself, push your way forward and let the other fellow look out for himself. Shared values? Far from it! Get all you can and take the other fellow’s too, if you’re smart enough. And the smartest of all are the ones who can say “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own.” Think how many years attempts of workers to organize were contested tooth and nail. Labor’s right to organize which none of us would contest today has been won with bitterness and even bloodshed. Nor have we been any more ready to accept a sense of community in our international relations. Do not forget the Die-Hard Isolationists – they may not yet be dead but only dormant. America for the Americans. Safe behind mountainous trade barriers, protected by 2 oceans, we thought we could watch right and freedom perish from the rest of the earth, so long as we ourselves remained untouched. And so we watched the world go to pieces bit by bit. Manchuria, Ethiopia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland. Only when our own security was shaken, did we waken to responsibility and to the reality of the world community from which we cannot escape, deny it as we will.

But where we as a nation have been blundering and blind, our enemies have been wise. Nazi Germany is built upon the recognition of that human need for community. Disheartened, disillusioned, weary, the German people found in the solidarity of National Socialism a new pride, a new strength, a new goal. Founded on one of the most basic needs in men’s hearts, the need of community, National Socialism has made use of all the most skillful propaganda for cultivating solidarity – the salute, the flag waving, the uniform, the songs, the mass meetings, the youth organizations, all with one purpose – to confirm belief in Das Volk, the German People – that special community of blood and speech and terrain, the Vaterland, the Reich. To serve the Reich is a German’s highest obligation and his supreme honor. The perversion of this fundamental human longing and aspiration for community is to me one of the worst evils of National Socialism.

Yet now at long last we here in the United States seem to be waking to that sense of community, roused by its perversion in the Nazi system. Slowly we were making a beginning before the War – Community Chest funds and community cooperatives, the products of the first stirrings of community spirit. Yet with December 7, 1941, we were precipitated willy nilly into solidarity. Tragic that it took a war to bring home to us not only our need for community but the necessity for it, if we are to act effectively. From the Army camps and the factories to the Civilian Defense headquarters in the community canning kitchens, men and women are discovering a new responsibility and a new challenge in community. If you doubt it, go to a Red Cross blood donation center, and see young and old, debutantes and workmen, rich and poor, waiting in line together to give their blood. One of the most thrilling testimonies to me is the increase in church attendance notable all over the country. Last Sunday morning literally every seat in the Mount Vernon Congregational Church in Boston was occupied. The latecomers overflowed into the pews reserved for the choir. It was a moving experience to be part of that congregation.

And our wartime awakening is not solely to a national solidarity. We are not joining in working, in worshiping together simply as Americans, to keep intact our own rights and privileges. There is emerging slowly in these days a new consciousness of solidarity with fellow men and women the world over. We are groping towards world community. The Fulbright Resolution was adopted in the house 360-29, pledging the U.S. to full responsibility in a post-war world. Conservative Cordell Hull speaks of effective international cooperation. Mr. Roosevelt’s message to Congress of September declared, “The policy of the good neighbor has shown such success in the hemisphere of the Americas that its extension to the whole world seems to be the logical next step.” Congress, the State Department, and the Administration are only echoing a growing conviction on the part of the people that we cannot live as a nation alone, that the postwar world should be based on mutual respect among nations, not on exploitation, on sharing not on exclusive this, on power with others rather than over others.

But where will we go from here? What will happen to this new sense of human community? This is the decisive hour. If it fails, we are committed to despair, to the same pattern of unsteady balancing of international power until the same cruel crash. All our sacrifice and are suffering will have been idle. If it succeeds, we have the right to hope, to work for a new pattern of international cooperation, to speak of peace.

What the future will be, I do not know, but I do know 2 things. There can be no abiding human community where there is no conviction of the power and presence of the universal God. Without the conviction of the fatherhood of God, freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood are only words. Only under God, in humility and love, do men and women share a real community. There is a story laid in Scotland, tho it might have been laid anywhere in the world. You seniors will recognize it, for Mr. Gezork[1] told it at Vespers last year, but it won’t hurt to recall it. A traveler walking along a lonely, rugged country road overtook a little girl who was toiling up the steep hill, flushed and panting a little from the weight of the large baby whom she was carrying on her back. The traveler stopped and asked her gently, “Isn’t that a rather heavy load for you to be carrying. Shall I help you?” The little girl smiled and answered gravely, “O, he’s not heavy. He’s my brother!” Only when we can see one another not as yellow or black or white, Jew or Gentile, native or foreigner, British or Japanese or Russian, not thru the eyes of difference, but thru the eyes of brotherhood, as one people, united under God, then and only then can we hope for a peace that shall endure.

And finally I know this. There will be no human community if we wait until after the war to begin it, or if you and I leave it up to Congress to establish. We must begin now to establish it in our own hearts and minds. We must shoulder personal responsi­bi­lity and commit ourselves to work for what we desire. The ideal of human community lays a demand upon our immediate thought and energy and action. It will mean sensitivity, it will mean sacrifice, but for each of us willing to follow, it will mean real, creative living. For the words of the First Epistle of John are a promise and an assurance, “No man hath seen God at any time; but if we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us. God is love and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.”

I am again struck by the references to “solidarity,” as I previously thought the word emerged only in the late 20th century. “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” are words in a popular song of 1969 – my own era – but they go back to Boys Town, Nebraska, in the 1920s, and Ruth had a Scottish version to tell. There is a lesson for democracy in Ruth’s admonition not to “leave it up to Congress to establish” human community. Instead it must be established “in our own hearts and minds,” a task for personal commitment.

Arthur Guyton’s surgical internship ended December 31, and he joined the U.S. Navy on January 1, 1944. For several months he had light duty performing appendectomies, gall bladder removals, and other common operations on Navy personnel and their dependents at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland. A baby boy, David, arrived in April.

Around that time Arthur received his orders to join a top-secret Army-Navy unit at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

When he was only 8, the boy known as Ott built his own shop from a former chicken coop. In the laboratories and the machine shop now at Fort Detrick he found a playground he could hardly have imagined. He completed his mechanical device to provide intermittent gastrointestinal suction. Several of these went to the hospital at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and a few to Mass General Hospital in Boston, where they proved quite serviceable.

As one of Arthur’s children growing up in the 1950s, I knew he had served in the U.S. Navy, but I never heard him talk about what he had done there. It turns out that he served in the biological and chemical weapons program, the existence of which remained secret until after the war.

Some decades later he could speak freely about it, as quoted in Brinson’s biography:

“I put together a survey of all those aspects of bacteriological warfare where my own background training might fit. There were two aspects where it did fit quite well. One of these was in devising physical types of apparatus, especially electronic apparatus to detect aerosol clouds. An aerosol cloud is a cloud of small particles. In this case, we were interested in clouds of small particles of bacteria or viruses or toxins. Therefore, I spent a good share of my time during the next two years devising different types of devices to detect particles in the air. One of these turned out to be reasonably successful, in which we would suck [gas phase] fluid through a small nozzle, the particles would become electrically charged as they came through the nozzle because of the friction with the air and with the walls of the nozzle, then deposition of the charged particle on a plate would give off an electrical pulse that could be amplified, could be discriminated in an electrical-discriminator to determine its size. And this could be plotted on a plotter to give one an idea of the sizes of particles in the air and how many particles were there. I spent a good part of my time during my Navy career at the bacterial warfare unit in designing apparatus for detecting clouds of bacteria or toxins.

“In addition, other people began to get me to work on electronic apparatus for other uses around the research compound, which was a compound of about one square mile of separate research and production buildings. Therefore, I worked on other types of electronic apparatus, such as a photo flash control apparatus, or studying this dispersion of particles from exploding bombs by photographic means, and so forth.

“Another project that fit with my background was to develop the appropriate electronic recording equipment for studying the action of the toxin called botulinum toxin. This is the toxin that one finds in botulism, which is one type of food poisoning. The botulinus bacterium releases this toxin into spoiled food and it can cause paralysis of the person who eats the food. The idea of using the botulinum toxin in warfare came from the fact that purified botulinum toxin is so lethal that 1 gram of it, if dispersed equally among 4,000,000 people, could paralyze all of these people and kill them . . . . Because of my electronic background, it was my job to build appropriate recording amplifiers so that we could record signals from nerves and muscles and determine exactly how the toxin worked to cause the paralysis.”[2]

Lieutenant Junior Grade Arthur Guyton received an Army Commendation Citation for his research in bacterial warfare. As the war ended, he made plans to finish his surgical training. The residency schedule at Mass General was already filled through spring 1946, so he accepted a term assignment at Hood College in Maryland to teach physics to young women, which pleased his mother greatly.

In the late spring of 1946 Arthur received his honorable discharge from the Navy and moved back to Boston with Ruth and little David. He began a rotation of 3 months in neurosurgery as his residency resumed at Mass General. He received offers to join that new field from Reginald Sedgwick, who was performing sympathectomies for the treatment of hypertension at Boston University, and from James White, head of neurosurgery at Mass General. The prospect of neurosurgery was enticing, but he felt that the greater opportunity and better match for his interests would be in cardiac surgery. Dr. Churchill at Mass General gave him access to the surgical research suites at the hospital, and he used some free time at nights to begin setting up equipment for planned experiments.

The whole nation was buoyant not only with victory, but also with the sense of sharing in a great effort. It was a grand time to begin a career and raise a family. Ruth and Arthur bought a house under construction in Wellesley, due to finish in September. She became pregnant again. For the summer she left their cramped apartment and moved with David to her parents’ summer house at Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. Arthur could get away almost every other weekend to join them in that beautiful setting.


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Header image:  Surgery, by Scotth, Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain. Wedding day, 1943, family photo.

[1] Herbert Johannes Gezork, Ph.D., in the early 1930s was pastor of First Baptist Church of Berlin, Germany, and leader of the German Baptist Youth Movement. Facing arrest after his writings were banned by the Nazi regime, he fled to the U.S. in 1936. He taught successively at Furman University, Wellesley College, and Andover Newton Theological School, serving as President of Andover Newton from 1950 to 1965.

[2] Brinson, C., with J. Quinn. Arthur C. Guyton: His Life, His Family, His Achievements. Oakdale Press, Jackson, Mississippi, 1989, pp. 44-45.


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