Hopkins Caves in to the Trend

ROBERT L. TAYLOR

May 25, 1991|By ROBERT L. TAYLOR

When the Johns Hopkins University announced its unconditionalprohibition of smoking on university property, I was greatly surprised, because as an undergraduate I had found that some of my best instructors were inveterate smokers and had seemingly found in their smoking great solace and reassurance.

Concerned that my senescent memory of those days might be at fault, I unearthed the yearbooks of my junior and senior years, the 1952 and 1953 Hullabaloos. Each included a section in which the undergraduate editors boasted of the distinguished scholars on the Hopkins staff; and my memory was vindicated when I saw that more than half of these distinguished scholars had chosen to be photographed contentedly smoking. Leo Spitzer and George Boas appeared in both books with cigarettes; Doctors Painter, Kouwenhoven, Macauley and Strong favored pipes.

Why did these men smoke?

William Kouwenhoven, described in the text as having ''pipe clenched firmly in teeth,'' was 67 at this time and died, according to ''Who Was Who in America,'' 22 years later after having lectured in surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine until the year of his death at the age of 89. He was assuredly not an undergraduate smoking to display machismo.

George Boas 61 when photographed, was a visiting lecturer in philosophy at 70, and died at 88. Ordinarily renown as a philosopher is gained by one's ability to discriminate, to choose percipiently between wise and foolish actions. Such a man is not seduced into smoking by the shallow blandishments of billboards.

I ask again, why did these mature and intelligent men, late in the course of long and useful lives, not merely smoke, but present themselves to the world in the act of smoking?

Perhaps I can suggest an answer as dispassionately as anyone. I own no tobacco stock whatever, either directly or through a fund or trust. When I did smoke, I averaged about half a pack a week. I never learned to inhale, and smoking did nothing for me emotionally.

However, I did not as a consequence heartlessly blind myself to the fact that smoking meant a great deal emotionally to some of my fellow creatures, and that it afforded them a calm and an assurance under stress that they could not derive from any other source.

I never knew either of these two long-lived men, but from my experience of life I suspect that they were helped in their very considerable achievements by the solace they derived from smoking. And now Hopkins is saying that, offered a choice between a brilliant scholar who smokes and a less brilliant one who caves in to today's popular trends, they will take the trendy one every time. I find it a singular way to pursue excellence.

I concede that the evidence does seem to indicate that smoking has bad physical effects upon some people. For all I know, Doctors Kouwenhoven and Boas may in later years have given up smoking or have suffered from racking emphysema. Even so, I contend that the net desirability of smoking cannot be finally assessed until the undeniable psychological benefits that many derive are offset against the physiological detriments involved.

Is it better to live 70 cheerful years or 75 irritable years? Certainly some people who give up smoking become exhaustingly irritable as a consequence.

I do not think that medical researchers can be said to have done a thorough and responsible job until they have dealt with this reality. It is refreshingly easy to examine lung tissue through a microscope and praise its soundness, and cruelly difficult to determine the amount of internal angst and discourtesy to others with which that soundness was purchased; but genuinely thorough medical research does not confine itself to the easy tasks.

I have now seen the lives of so many hard-working and worthwhile people darkened and the value of their work impaired when draconian smoking prohibitions are imposed that I cannot be enthusiastic about them.

But whatever my mere opinions may be, there is one undeniable certainty: that Hopkins is now producing a climate in which many of its most eminent scholars of the past would not have been comfortable, in the questionable belief that one can hastily deprive people of an enjoyment that has given them comfort and consolation for 40 years or longer, and that in all other respects their lives will continue as productively as ever.

To quote the Duke of Wellington, if you can believe that, you can believe anything.

*Robert L. Taylor writes from Timonium.

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