Whirly-Go, Soldering, and Forgiveness

Struck by polio, Arthur Guyton could not pursue his chosen career of cardiovascular surgery and turned instead to basic medical science in physiology. In the fall of 1947 he joined the faculty of the 2-year University of Mississippi Medical School in his hometown of Oxford. The following year, despite some concern from the dean that he might not be able to withstand the rigors of leadership and research due to his disability, he became chairman of the Department of Physiology.

Arthur’s prior experience at Harvard and Fort Detrick proved invaluable, and he soon received the first federal research grants to be awarded at the University. Now he could pay technicians to help him in the laboratory and soon also a machinist to build analytical equipment that he designed. Student assistants stepped up to help in research. His small group began to publish papers in major medical journals.

Arthur continued to build things at home during the years in Oxford. By mail order he purchased a Heathkit television. He had mastered soldering electrical connections, but this was several times more complicated than anything he had ever assembled. Somehow it worked. Our family was one of the first in Oxford to watch Howdy Doody and Sid Caesar on television.

I remember that the TV set had no cabinet, at least at first. Daddy warned the children not to touch any of the wires, especially around the picture tube, because they carried 300 volts. “What are volts?” I asked. “Just think of it as 300 jolts,” came his answer.

Sheep Whirly-go 3
The Whirly-Go

Our backyard in Oxford was small, and mostly dust instead of grass. Daddy had a stout steel pole 10 or 12 feet tall planted in the middle of the backyard, topped by a rotating plate with ball bearings and two 3/16 inch steel rods hanging on opposite sides extending down to metal handles. If my memory is correct, he named this contraption the Whirly-Go. A small child could grab one of the handles, run as hard as possible around the pole, and then launch into the air for a ride suspended by centrifugal force. It was better if you had a sibling on the other side; two children could generate greater speed and longer rides.

For extra fun he built an electric car. It had no roof or doors, just 2 wooden benches and seat backs suspended by a welded steel pipe frame supported by 4 bicycle wheels. Behind the seats were 2 or maybe 3 car batteries. His steering mechanism resembled that of a regular car. There were no laws that disallowed young children from driving the electric car. We tooled around the quiet streets near our house at will.


Ruth and 7 children in the electric car

In 1955 the University of Mississippi Medical School moved from Oxford to Jackson, becoming a full 4-year school in the transition. Our family moved with it. Daddy bought 15 acres of land a little north of the city limits, centered in a large meadow and surrounded by woods. Here he and Mama made plans to raise their growing family, already 6 children by the time we arrived in Jackson. We moved into a small house about 200 yards distant from the meadow, and work began on building the larger house. I wrote about it in a high school essay, quoted in Brinson’s biography:

The big building project for the next three years was our house, made of poured concrete reinforced with steel in the same manner that is used for making highway bridges. It pleased Daddy to think that this house could keep us safe from atomic attack. The house is large, is well ventilated with many windows, and has no steps to inhibit the mobility of a person on crutches . . . .

We children were impressed at Daddy’s getting out to the building site at seven o’clock every morning to give instructions to the workers, almost always a group of black men with various levels of skill and experience, who were supervised during the day by one or two whom Daddy trusted well. My older brothers and I helped with the building during the summers and on some weekends during the school year. I was seven years old when the foundation was poured and the floors and walls began to appear. Daddy found a special job for me. Concrete becomes stronger as it is “cured,” he had learned, and this process is enhanced if the structure is kept wet over the first few days. My job was to take a hose and spray water over the newly poured walls and floors. We gathered straw from the recently mowed meadow around the house and laid the straw two or three inches thick on each new floor area. By hosing this layer of straw, we could keep the floor wet through most of a hot Mississippi summer day. Looking back upon this experience, I am not sure how important the spraying really was to the concrete’s strength. It certainly made me feel important at the time. And when I later learned how hard the Hebrew slaves worked on Pharaoh’s buildings, I felt a certain kinship.[1]

After we moved into the new house, the building projects continued. From the same high school essay –

For many teenage boys growing up in Mississippi, who might eventually become lawyers, doctors, store owners, and so on, a father will recommend an outdoor construction job for the summer. The boy can learn the meaning of hard work and emerge a man. We did our construction work at home. Although some of the older children had worked fairly hard on the house, and as I recall had built much of the extensive shelving and cabinetry in the seventeen rooms, we had not performed one building project from start to finish. Daddy suggested first a swimming pool and then a tennis court. The swimming pool would be rectangular, 25 x 48 feet, and would have ten feet of water in the deep end for diving. The method of constructing the concrete walls the pool was the same as that used for the house. Portable forms of Daddy’s own design were used. After each level of about twenty inches was poured and allowed to set for a couple of days, the forms were removed, lifted up, and clamped to the level just made in order to provide the mold for the next level.

The children did most of the work on the pool. This included Cathy, Jeannie, and little Douglas, doing what they could. A janitor named Ginger [Howard] from the medical school, a true friend to Daddy and our family, helped us greatly, doing the most difficult parts of the work. It was indeed hard work. Only in retrospect can I discover how much fun it was. After we built the swimming pool, over the next summer we built the tennis court. High backstops were placed at either end, strong with chicken wire at first and later with chain link fencing, and four flood lights were suspended from wires running between the backstops and two tall poles on either side. In constructing and then in using the swimming pool and the tennis court, we learned something important. Don’t plan for a minimal effort, whatever you make or do. Plan for something that really will satisfy you and those whom you love, and you will find the time and energy to accomplish it. Three generations now have found great enjoyment in using the pool and the tennis court, and if circumstances permit, these facilities can last well into the future and provide enjoyment for future generations as well.[2]

In the meadow around these construction efforts, we planted thousands of pine tree seedlings. Tree farming can be profitable in Mississippi. Daddy worried that growth of the little pine trees might be choked away in the tall grass. He figured that a cow and 4 sheep could take care of that problem, saying, “We won’t need to mow the grass.” Within a month, the cow died. The sheep were more resilient.

We also had a beautiful black-and-white mongrel puppy, too little for experiments at the medical center when Daddy decided to bring it home. We named him Mutnik after the Russian satellite that first carried a living animal into space. Mutnik lived about 10 years, our favorite dog ever. When he began a habit of chasing the sheep, we could not manage to train him otherwise and we never considered chaining him or fencing him in. He had a tail curled upward like an Alaskan husky, which bobbed up and down in the tall grass as he chased rabbits and sheep. The sheep died one by one, whether from exhaustion or lack of love I am not sure.

Robert’s sailboat

The building projects never stopped. We learned the torture of trying to sleep after sanding down fiberglass while building a motorboat from a kit. My 2 older brothers David and Robert later both built sailboats with fiberglass, along with welded steel trailers to carry the boats up to Sardis Lake near Ole Miss, where Daddy had sailed 35 years previously. I built Heathkits – a power supply, a radio receiver and an oscilloscope – and a ham radio transmitter of my own design.


We bought a commercially made RCA television, on which I recall watching early cowboy shows – Lone Ranger and Tonto, Gene Autry and Dale Evans, Hopalong Cassidy. We joined Mama and Daddy to watch the evening news, as well as the Ed Sullivan Show, which featured fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley in 1956 and 1957.

One day the on-off switch in the television stopped working. Daddy suggested that I fix it. It was attached to the volume control, just an extra switch assembly on the back of the audio volume potentiometer. Daddy drove me down to the electronics store, where I found a new potentiometer/switch that fit nicely into the television chassis. I soldered the appropriate wires to the switch terminals, and the television worked fine. Quite an accomplishment at age 11!

Around that time we had only recently moved into the big concrete house. We had connected a large outdoor antenna to the television, but had not yet moved the antenna up to the roof. It stood somewhat awkwardly on the ground, leaning against the side of the house. Reception was adequate for 2 of the 3 available television channels in Jackson.

One afternoon we heard screaming and crying from 7-year-old sister Cathy, who had been playing in the front yard near the antenna. She had brushed against it, and it fell on her. I and one of my brothers ran out to see what the matter was. Cathy was writhing in agony, shouting “Get it off me!!” I touched the antenna, and my hand and arm jumped back on receiving a vibrating, penetrating shock easily recognized as 110 volts alternating current – as if I were holding the metal blade of a screwdriver inserted into an electric outlet.

Mama came running outside, grasped the antenna with both hands, pulled it off Cathy, then fell to the ground and lay still with the antenna still touching her between her neck and collarbone. I was scared to death and didn’t know what to do.

It so happened that 2 men were at our house, doing some kind of state inspection if memory serves me right. One of them yelled, “Unplug the television!” My brother Steve responded quickly and unplugged it. The live current in the antenna ceased.

Cathy was terribly frightened, but otherwise okay. Mama remained motionless on the ground. The men picked her up and carried her limp body inside, placing her on the living room sofa. She was unconscious, but breathing.

Tears brimmed in our eyes, but we didn’t want to cry for fear of making it worse. Silently we kept our eyes on Mama and watched her breathe. Someone called Daddy, who immediately left work to drive home.

Exactly when I can’t remember, but at some point I realized to my horror that it was my fault. In fact, subsequent inspection showed that I had applied too much solder to a switch terminal during my repair. My big glob of solder touched the outer metal casing of the volume potentiometer, electrifying the entire chassis of the television and the antenna as well. I could have killed my mother.

After 5 to 10 minutes that seemed like eternity, she woke up. Would she be all right? Daddy asked her questions and made her move every limb.

As far as I know Mama suffered no permanent effects, although she displayed a big pink scar at the base of her neck for years. In the days following this episode her concern extended to her children much more than herself. She was quick to let me know that she was going to be all right. I felt forgiven, and I never heard another word about it from either parent. They did let me know, however, that I would not be repairing the television again.

Daddy’s interest in electronics continued. He was intrigued by the amplification provided by a photomultiplier tube, which he considered to be one of the greatest innovations in electronics until the transistor came along.

When I was in my mid-teens, he brought the older boys into a medical instrument venture that he named the Oxford Instrument Company. One instrument worked on a principle of red light absorbance similar to the pulse oximeters now commonly used in hospitals to monitor patients for respiratory distress. A red light shining through two streams of blood onto a photomultiplier tube generated signals that rotated a servo-driven optical wedge to equalize pulses of light traversing the arterial and venous blood. From the rotation of the circular optical wedge, the instrument would read out the difference in oxygen content which made the arterial blood a lighter red.

Daddy then designed an instrument to measure the difference in oxygen content between inhaled and exhaled air. Similar to iron, oxygen has magnetic properties (though less than 1/1000 as strong), whereas nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor are not magnetic at all. Daddy turned to the photomultiplier tube and light pulses again to measure the difference between two air samples introduced between the poles of a powerful magnet.

By measuring blood oxygen difference and gas oxygen difference, a researcher in the lab or a physician in the intensive care unit can calculate the overall rate of blood flow through the heart, called cardiac output, from the Fick equation as follows:Sheep Cardiac output 2

We sold the entire system for $5000. Physiology labs around the U.S. and indeed the world now could measure cardiac output as readily as the Guyton lab at the University of Mississippi. I did a lot of soldering on the electronics, and Daddy carefully inspected my work.

As children growing up in the big concrete house in a meadow north of Jackson, it rarely occurred to us to question the meaning or value of life. Mama took care of the little ones and stabilized the family. Daddy found more for us to do and gave us more responsibility than we ever would have asked for, encouraging and modeling self-motivation. When we messed up and knew it, forgiveness came readily.


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Images:  Family touch football, starting young. The big concrete house is in the background. Family photo. Whirly-go, Own Work, of course. Other images, family photos.

[1] Brinson, C., with Quinn, J. Arthur C. Guyton: His Life, His Family, His Achievements. Oakdale Press, Jackson, MS, 1989, p. 67.

[2] Ibid., p.  68.

3 thoughts on “Whirly-Go, Soldering, and Forgiveness

  1. Greetings John, thank you for sharing. Very interesting story. Your Dad, was very special and certainly made a difference for man kind. I look forward to future posts. Old Jacksonian living in Tallahassee, FL for 44 years.

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