At Home in the Unseen World
By George MakariSeptember 14, 2020
An immunologist, my father was so inventive that a pharmaceutical company built him his own lab. For three decades he focused on an antigen-based test for cancer and possible immunotherapies, sure that mobilizing our own tiny warriors was beautiful, true to nature, and the way forward. In all this, he was a maverick and a romantic, and for that the cancer establishment made him pay. The same renegade spirit led him to consider the nation’s flu vaccine a mess. He whipped up his own batch each fall. It was our family’s home brew.
He died a few years ago on a soft, sun-filled day in May, and each spring since then, memories of him surface unbidden. This year, however, they have come in a flood. In COVID-19 isolation, glued to epidemiological statistics and dicey questions regarding antibodies, viral loads, lipid shells, and mutating RNA, I vainly seek answers, perplexed about how the city I adore can ever resume its shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy. I recall my dad’s eccentricities and the way we all might need to adopt them now.
He was born in the Holy Land, near Mount Lebanon. Antiquity breathed around him. Icons bled, prayers were answered, and the graffiti in the caves by the shore were chiseled by the first Christians. From the youngest age, he was asked to enter that kingdom, to envision what could not be seen, to have faith in events that defied rules of causality. No, the Age of Miracles had not passed. The air still teemed with spirits. His parents called to them, as their son, born in 1917, entered a world at war and in the grips of an influenza epidemic. Philomena let her boy’s hair grow past his shoulders, cropped the locks, and one Sunday presented them as an offering. Oh Lord, watch over our son.
For a long time, life’s derangements stayed away. The pandemic disappeared. The locusts — yes, that biblical scourge — departed. Peace held. Then, in 1938, the young man’s father set out for Beirut on a rainy night and never arrived. For those he left behind, the wheels of his overturned car forever spun. Sent to the university at too young an age, my father blinked and was alone. He lost faith in the order of angels. He poured out his anger and pain to Mikhail Naimy, one of Kahlil Gibran’s circle. Surprisingly, the poet wrote back. He asked the youth to consider our unknowingness of God and his plans. Six decades later, my father could recite lines from those lyrical letters as if they lay before him.
Unknowingness, however, was not much of a life plan. At the American University of Beirut, a teacher recommended a book that became my father’s blueprint. Published in 1926 by the American scientist-turned-popular-writer Paul de Kruif, Microbe Hunters was an international best seller. With breathless adulation, it profiled men like Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch, secular prophets who had glimpsed the invisible, and like Dante returning from the underworld, were forever altered. They walked through the air keenly aware of the teeming, whirling, and wiggling beings all around. The merchant-turned-lens-maker van Leeuwenhoek put gunk from between his teeth under magnification, and found it jumping with “wretched beasties.” It was another reality, at once angelic, the astonishing source of life, and demonic, filled with vectors of death.
De Kruif’s tales inspired many readers to take up the hunt. So too, my father. The microscope became his magic wand. It was not exactly the airy realm of the Church Fathers, but here it was. His conversion came with new kinds of patron saints. De Kruif extolled a group of immortals not just for their brilliance but for their whims and outlandish behavior. Derided as eccentric, many of them were shunned by their neighbors. Microbe Hunters concluded with the distracted Paul Ehrlich, he with “a most weird and wrong-headed and unscientific imagination.” Living with a foot in that other world, Ehrlich discovered a “magic bullet” for syphilis. For readers, the moral imperative was clear. The enemy must be imagined. Others will scoff. Be weird.
For a battle was being waged. Before germ theory was formulated, unnamed contagions crossed borders and slipped past our sentries. Cities hollowed out. Wild frenzies of hedonism and end-of-days cults sprang up. Sacrificial victims were sought out and tormented. Blood was offered. Praise was sung. When the plague returned in Moorish Spain, everyone — Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, and Christian priests — joined to raise their voices in prayer. The pestilence did not listen.
After graduating from medical school, my father witnessed these microbes doing their worst. Ululations, that particular Arabic form of mourning, rang in his ears as he rode up to remote mountain villages on a mule. He found communities decimated by cholera and that killer, malaria. What he called “his mission” became clear; he specialized in bacteriology and parasitology. In 1945, he received a British Council scholarship to study tropical medicine in London, where he met Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who by serendipity discovered penicillin and ushered in a new age. A World Health Organization fellowship brought him to Harvard to study public health. There his immunological research took up typhoid, malaria, kala-azar, and hepatitis, only to be diverted by a wacky thought, the kind so cherished by readers of Microbe Hunters. Could the same methods used in the TB test be applied to a non-infectious disease like cancer? Did those riotous cells have specific antigens? He never looked back. Be weird.
And so, during my childhood, he might be with us watching television, or dreamy, back in the lab, his “enchanted isle” as he once wrote, “where the known meets the unknown, and the seen joins the unseen.” At times he tried to transport us into that microscopic world. God’s hand, he said, could be glimpsed by zooming in a hundred-fold. Over Sunday lunch, he would wax lyrical about his astonishing “friends,” the leukocytes, those tiny, darting globules that somehow recognized self from other. He sang the praises of the poor, misunderstood macrophage.
When he went off like this, my mother would smile and mutter, Votre père est original. In French, that is not a compliment. However, he was original, out of step with the neighbors. To our horror, if someone was coughing or smoking cigarettes next to us at a movie house, he would have us find other seats. No one else did that. Fruits and vegetables went in soap and water to rid them of DDT, mold, and bacteria. We were the only ones who had a carbon-filtered water system, the only ones who drank skim milk and ate whole wheat bread. Pollen was his nemesis, so when he did yard work, he fought off allergies by wearing a mask, which was mortifying. Masks were also deployed if someone at home had a bug. If one of us felt a cold coming on, we were urged to lavage our noses with sudsy water and gargle with Listerine, which of course we did not do. At one point, he came upon a virus endemic among American chickens; it caused cancer among our feathered friends, and he worried it might be transmitted to humans. He published his hypothesis, and at home a double-boiler contraption blasted our poultry.
My father remained spiritual, though at times his two invisible worlds collided. Early on, he asked for a private meeting with our priest to warn him against granting communion from the same chalice to the faithful, especially during flu season. Did the Father know that H2N2 killed a million people in 1957–’58, and that in 1968–’69, H3N2 carried off another million? Plastic cups, perhaps. His entreaties fell flat. We never drank the blood of Christ again. If one of us was feeling sick, and reported, Hey, no big deal, it’s just the flu, he would take an inventory of symptoms and with evident relief conclude, No, it’s not the flu. Born into a pandemic, he had not forgotten.
Now on May 4, seven years after his death, I find myself pacing in an eerie silence ruptured too often by sirens. I try to envision these RNA bullets aimed at us. At one point, the hospital system where I work held 2,500 COVID-19 patients, some 600 on ventilators. Listening to the testimonies from our makeshift ICUs is nearly unbearable. Outside my apartment, I flee when someone sneezes or coughs. I drench our delivered produce in Castile soap. I scold utter strangers for not wearing masks and mix up my own hand sanitizer from a Polish grain alcohol called Spirytus. I have become him. And sadly, it is no longer weird at all.
I’m glad my father didn’t witness our colossal public health collapse, the incredible denials and misstatements, and our delirious sense of omnipotence. He did not have to pull his hair out over how, for weeks, almost no one wore masks. He did not have to hear experts counsel the populace against them. It would have been devastating. Microbe Hunters had pointed toward a secular Easter when knowledge of a world beyond the senses might forestall death. And here before this virus stood blindness, lies, and ignorance once again.
Near the end, with my father’s memory mostly gone, we took a walk one bright afternoon. His last years had been hard; after millions of dollars and many confirmatory studies, his antigen test for cancer had been blocked at the last moment by a new batch of FDA bureaucrats. Too many false positives, they had insisted, which for a test intended to find otherwise undetectable carcinogenic cells was, of course, the whole point. It was la-la land, and he was stuck there. His discoveries, it became clear, would vanish along with him. Though his sense of mission never receded, soon his step grew shaky. Now as we slowly passed under oaks and maples, I asked half-seriously, “Dad, what is the secret to life?” It was a silly, adolescent question, but I wanted to pull him out of his silence, see if he would riff off that. Embers faintly burning, his eyes got the look I knew so well. “More life,” he swiftly replied, “more life.”
George Makari is the director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry and professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. He is the author, most recently of Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, and the forthcoming Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia.
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