He might have become the last person to die

December 28, 1990|By Gwinn Owens

JESUS said that those who believe in him "should not perish but have everlasting life." I never asked my friend Nicholas about his religious beliefs, but he dreamed of everlasting life.

His interests focused on the flesh, not the spirit. This followed from his job -- he was both a surgeon and a biochemist. Early in his career he forsook the operating room for the laboratory. He was one of the pioneers in the techniques of tissue culture -- the growth of living tissue in vitro, that is in a dish or a test tube.

Nicholas loved life; he was zesty, gregarious, sensual. His joy was music, friends, food, drink. And yet, in his occasional reflective moods, when I talked to him alone, there was a sense of subtle sadness.

One evening I told him about a science fiction short story I had written, in which a scientist discovers that the aging of human tissue is caused by its increasing inability to absorb the trace element molybdenum. By a method of sustaining the absorption of molybdenum when they reached maturity, human beings simply stopped aging.

"There is a germ of truth in what you write," he said. "We know that human tissues grown in vitro seem to reproduce up to a point and then, for reasons that we don't understand, grow old and feeble and stop reproducing."

"But you don't know why."

"Exactly. We don't know why."

"How near is science to solving this cosmic riddle?"

"Perhaps nearer than you think. I believe someday we will find the answer. Then people will literally live forever. Of course, they will die from diseases or accidents, but as long as they avoid these things, they will enjoy eternal youth."

"You are certainly optimistic," I said.

"I probably am, but I know the great strides scientists are making in this direction." His expression darkened.

"At the same time I am sad, but I love life and don't want mine ever to end. I am sad to think that you and I might be the last generation that has to die."

There was an irony in his professing such an attitude; Nicholas seemed frail, almost undernourished. His frame did not seem made of the stuff of immortality.

That conversation took place 35 years ago. Some years after, Nicholas moved back to the country of his ancestors to care for his aged mother, though he continued his medical research. The practical difficulty of sustaining a friendship over thousands of miles caused us to lose track of him.

Last year, at the urging of a mutual friend still in touch with Nicholas, we traversed the seas and miles for a reunion with him. The years had effected a remarkable transition. In his middle 60s, he was robust, handsome and confident. His medical research was now in an entirely different field from the tissue-culture studies he had done in his youth.

Remembering the frail, uncertain young scientist I had known so long ago, I marveled at his physical change, and even found myself pondering: Had Nicholas found the secret we had discussed more than three decades earlier?

We parted in the satisfaction that our neglected friendship had been solidly re-established, that we would, despite the barriers of space, meet again, often. If our advancing age compromised our pledge, we did not mention it.

A few days ago, from the same mutual friend who had reunited us, I received a phone call. Nicholas, having suffered a stroke, was dead.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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