Love of food a boon to institute

WAY BACK WHEN

January 04, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On the heels of the annual holiday caloric overdose, doctors are once again sounding the alarm that one of the nation's continuing health problems is obesity.

So what else is new?

One of history's great stomachs, which belonged to the Gilded Age trencherman James "Diamond Jim" Buchanan Brady, resulted in the endowment of the Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which began accepting patients in January 1915.

Brady, who rose from the slums of New York to become vice president of Standard Steel Car Co., had an annual income of more than $1 million.

His pre-income tax fortune, derived from selling 100 railroad cars a day, allowed him to indulge his passion for food, the company of Broadway actress Lillian Russell, and collecting and wearing diamonds from a collection that was estimated to be worth $2 million.

"He was an odd character," said restaurateur George Rector, whose Broadway establishment was the setting for many of Brady's gustatory conquests.

"When Diamond Jim had all his illumination in place, he looked like an excursion steamer at twilight. He had powerful diamonds in his shirt front that cast beams strong enough to sunburn an unwary pedestrian. He had diamonds in his cuffs and suspender buttons fore and aft. He had diamonds on his fingers and there was a rumor he had diamond bridgework," he said.

"Hell," said Brady. "I've got to have some fun."

Russell tipped the scales at 165 pounds, and she shared Brady's penchant for 14-course dinners.

"Fleshly arm in arm, plump shoulder to shoulder, they toddled together into the social history of their time," wrote John Burke in his 1972 book, Duet in Diamonds: The Flamboyant Saga of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady.

Brady, who wore a size 18 1/2 collar, once explained his self-regulating modus operandi to a New York society hostess with whom he was about to dine.

"Whenever I sit down to a meal, I always make it a point to leave just 4 inches between my stomach and the edge of the table. And then, when I can feel 'em rubbin' together pretty hard, I know I've had enough," he said.

Brady, who did not smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea, flushed down his meals with pitchers of orange juice.

"A typical lunch consisted of two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters, and beef. He finished with several whole pies. This lasted him until dinner at 4:30," wrote H. Paul Jeffers in his book, Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age, published in 2001.

"That meal began with a couple of dozen oysters, six crabs, and bowls of green turtle soup. The main course was likely to be two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin, and a variety of vegetables. Desserts were pastries and perhaps a five-pound box of candy," he wrote.

"He was the best 25 customers I ever had," said Rector.

Brady's outrageous consumption of food eventually caught up with him. One night in April 1912, he awakened with intense stomach pains and had problems urinating. He was afraid he would die.

His doctor urged Brady to get to Baltimore as quickly as possible to see Dr. Hugh Hampton Young, a renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital urologist.

Arriving aboard a private rail car, Brady was taken to Hopkins where technicians had reinforced a bed and operating table to accommodate him.

The diagnosis was a large kidney stone, and Young advised surgery. He had invented a prostatic incisor that allowed the operation to take place through the urethra with no external incision and completed under general anesthesia.

But Brady was diabetic and had Bright's disease, a urinary infection, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. Young only went forward with the procedure because Brady insisted, and completed it without complications.

The surgeon then reluctantly left for New York, bound for a medical conference in Europe, while continuing to worry about his patient's recovery.

Arriving in New York with his family, Young was astonished to learn that Brady had arranged for front-row theater seats and a guided tour of the city. He had also upgraded the Youngs' accommodations on the ship that would take them to Europe. Their staterooms were banked in flowers, while wines, liquors and boxes of Havana cigars arrived in an endless profusion.

"All this thought and care and generosity were the work of a man whom the doctors had given 24 hours to live," wrote Young in A Surgeon's Autobiography, published in 1940. "He had thought of the little things for the comfort of someone else while he was on what he considered his death bed."

While recuperating at Hopkins, Brady showered his nurses with two-carat diamond rings and had his meals brought in from the Belvedere Hotel.

When Young saw Brady again for a checkup, the doctor gingerly brought up the subject of a urological hospital at Hopkins, hoping Brady would be interested in building a "monument to himself."

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