'Family of Doctors' is pretty sterile

May 22, 1994|By Gerri Kobren

In the attic of his parents' Cleveland home, psychiatrist David Hellerstein -- son of a pediatrician mother and a cardiologist father -- discovered old books and papers documenting a remarkable story. Traced back over five generations was a family of physicians, beginning with Dr. Marcus Rosenwasser, who opened his Cleveland practice in 1868, continuing with Marcus' nephew Dr. Gustave Feil, stepfather to Dr. Harold Cohen Feil (David's maternal grandfather) whose wife, Nellie, was Marcus' great-niece.

Equally remarkable were the medical advances the family witnessed and helped create. Marcus was in the generation that had to be persuaded about the virtues of antiseptic surgery. David's father, Herman Hellerstein, was a pioneer of heart-healthy diet and therapeutic exercise. In David's generation (four doctors, a poet and an environmentalist), the sibs keep tabs on one another through computer searches for Hellerstein research papers.

What an amazing tale it is! How exciting it might have been if the author had stretched beyond his just-the-facts-ma'am approach. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist is not forthcoming where feelings are concerned, and where there should be life, there's just a collection of data.

"Damn it!" his father says, a few pages from the end of the book, when age and advancing cancer slow him down on a family walk. It is one of the very few quoted remarks in what seems more like a family-tree saga, for the family, than a family adventure aimed at the general public. For a general reader, it pretty well sums up the reaction, too.

MA Ms. Kobren is a copy editor in The Sun's features department.

Title: "A Family of Doctors"

Author: David Hellerstein

Publisher: Hill and Wang

Length, price: 269 pages, $21

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