Destroyed by his own invention Hugh Davis had it all: a promising career at Johns Hopkins, an international reputation and a string of important medical discoveries. But the Dalkon Shield scandal broke him - as a scientist and as a father.

October 25, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Bruce Davis' father was dying, that much was clear. While others might have hoped for a miracle, neither Bruce nor his father had the capacity for delusion. They had at least that much in common, a faith in the empirical, an appreciation of the observable and the measurable. And what could be observed and measured on Gibson Island in the autumn of 1996 was that time was collapsing for Dr. Hugh Davis.

Each day removed a measure of weight and color from Davis, whose vitality and arrogance once made lecture halls at Johns Hopkins medical school seem all too confining. Pancreatic cancer was erasing him. If Bruce were to square accounts with his father, if he were to achieve a peaceful ending to a relationship characterized by acrimony and competition, it would have to be now.

But what words of reconciliation could he offer to a father who had abandoned him emotionally, who had surrendered his role as protector and leader? What comfort could he give to the man who had led his family into scandal and ruin?

Where his father was concerned, Bruce's instincts nudged him toward censure rather than generosity. It had been different once. Bruce had felt an unqualified love for Hugh, and pride, too. But that had changed, and Bruce knew precisely the line of demarcation.

The Dalkon Shield disaster was the darkness that had lingered over his family for nearly a quarter of a century. It was the before and after of everything. Before: Hugh Davis was a rising force in international medicine at Johns Hopkins, a bold innovator in the field of women's health and family planning. After: His name was synonymous with medicine's perceived misogyny and the most pernicious impulses of corporate America.

Thousands of women suffered because of Hugh Davis' invention. Women the world over contracted searing infections from the IUD that the A.H. Robins Co. rushed to market. Many became infertile. Some died. The last remaining lawsuits involving the Dalkon Shield are scheduled to end this week. By the time appeals are exhausted, more than $3 billion will have been paid to nearly 200,000 women or their families who filed injury or death claims.

For Bruce Davis, the repercussions were devastating as well. Before the Dalkon Shield, Hugh Davis was the voluble patriarch of his family, the bountiful provider of wealth, both financial and intellectual. After, in the grip of mental illness, he became their tormentor, a man whose paranoia, obsessions and rage were suffocating.

But the cancer would soon consume Hugh Davis, and Bruce would be left to decipher what it had all meant, what they had been to each other and why. He could not change their past. All he could do now was try to fashion an ending he could live with for the rest of his life.

Late on that October afternoon in 1996, Bruce sat on a marble-topped coffee table next to the worn leather couch where Hugh lay, no longer able to rise. The only illumination in the room was the blue, late-afternoon sunlight reflected off the Chesapeake Bay.

Hugh could not speak or digest food, his skin was ashen and his breathing uneven. He had finally consented to morphine, but his eyes remained alert. Bruce was convinced that his father, ever the doctor and scientist, had calculated the precise moment of his death. Perhaps that wasn't so remarkable. Hugh"s weight had tumbled under 70 pounds. There wasn't much left of him to take.

Surmising that this would be their last conversation, Bruce gently grasped his father's skeletal hand in his own. Then, he began to speak.

It is one of Bruce Davis' most distinct childhood memories: He is with his father in the darkened dining room of their Guilford home. Bruce, 12 years old, stocky and with a dark drift of curly hair, sits at one end of the dining room table, holding a slim, metal cylinder containing optical lenses and a light. Hugh stands behind him with a watch. At his instruction, Bruce inserts a long forceps through the tube and begins picking at a string lying on the table.

The cylinder is a laparoscope, a medical instrument used to explore and perform surgery in the abdominal cavity. The forceps are Hugh's latest prototype, an instrument he believes will allow surgeons greater precision in sterilization procedures. At the far end is a tiny rubber band, which, in Hugh's design, can be deployed to tie off a woman's Fallopian tubes. The string on the table is the stand-in for the Fallopian tubes.

Peering through the eyepiece and manipulating the rings controlling the forceps, Bruce clamps down on the string and draws it into the laparoscope. He then squeezes the rings the way his father has taught him, and the rubber band snaps tightly into place around the string.

"Great!" Hugh exclaims. "Three minutes!"

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