Saturday, April 18, 2009

You never know who you’re going to meet

In recent blog posts, I’ve written about the sessions and lectures I attended at the 2009 Illinois History Symposium, “Abraham Lincoln in Ante-bellum Illinois: 1830-1861,” held from March 26 - 28.

This post is about one of the most interesting people I met during the entire symposium, his work on Lincoln and the mark he’s leaving across the globe.

In the future, I’ll tell you about:
  • Ron Solberg’s fun session, “Whizbangs on the Prairie: A History of the Traveling Salesman in Illinois,” and
  • a visit to a site on the Underground Railroad, Woodlawn Farm, near Jacksonville, (Ill.)

Floating across campus
I was still on a cloud as I walked across the Illinois College campus in Jacksonville on Friday evening, March 27, 2009. After all, I’d just met Richard Dreyfuss, reconnected with my Lincoln friend Harold Holzer and met Holzer’s lovely wife, Edith.

And, if that wasn’t enough, I was now on my way to hear Dreyfuss and Holzer present “Lincoln Seen and Heard.” As I took one of the many sidewalks which seem to intersect the rolling campus at all sorts of angles, I met up with a mustachioed man in tie and jacket going the same direction. I asked if he were heading to the presentation, too, and asked, “Shall we head over there together?” He agreed.

When I inquired where he was from, the man answered, “England” and explained that he was there to present a paper on Lincoln and the Blue Mass (mercury). This was exciting. I told him I’d read about the topic, was planning to attend that session and looking forward to it.

We reached our destination, a beautiful chapel on campus, and went our separate ways. I was meeting a friend, and I’m not sure where my walking companion ended up sitting.

My fellow sojourner that evening was Norbert Hirschhorn, M.D. He’s a quiet contemplative man, who seems kind and gentle, yet has an air of mystery about him. That shroud of mystery cloaked a person like few I’ve ever met.

Leaving a legacy
I knew Hirschhorn was a physician, but what I didn’t know until he was introduced before his speech was what a powerful legacy this man is leaving. Let me tell you a bit about it now. Some of it is worth saving for later.

Those of you who grew up in the sixties may remember that some of us thought we could save the world. Yes, I know - some from the sixties remember very little.

While some dropped out, others settled into jobs and families, not too unlike the generation before us, except that we somehow thought we could juggle even more than our parents. In trying to do so, we were often overwhelmed, and our dreams of making a difference seemed to fly out the window.

A very few did follow their hearts – to lands far and wide – and really did help save the world. When the moderator read his introduction, I learned Norbert Hirschhorn is one of those people.

For four decades, Hirschhorn’s had a career in public health, which included award-winning research, teaching, and management of complex, multi-disciplinary projects, both in the United States and abroad. He was a co-developer of the life-saving method of oral rehydration for diarrhea in adults and children, from the bedside to national programs. For this, he was honored with awards from the Dana and Pollin Foundations, and commended by President Clinton as an “American Health Hero.”

As a consultant, Hirschhorn has worked around the world on maternal and child health issues.

Hirschhorn helped establish and guide the USAID-funded Egyptian National Control of Diarrheal Diseases Project, developing research and programmatic strategies in coordination with Egyptian, American, private sector and United Nations agencies. The project reduced childhood mortality from diarrhea by over 60 percent over a decade, saving an estimated 300,000 lives. Since then, worldwide, millions of lives have been saved with this treatment.

After a stint teaching in Minnesota, Hirschhorn directed the Division of Family Health at the Minnesota Department of Health. He says he’s semi-retired now, yet he still helps the World Health Organization research tobacco industry documents and tobacco control and lectures at Yale University School of Public Health – all this while living in London and Beirut.

Gotta have a hobby – or two
In his spare time … (How is it that people like this can fill their time so fully and so productively?) In his spare time, Hirschhorn serves as a medical historian, doing research for publication in academic journals on illnesses of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott.

His work on Lincoln and the blue mass brought him to Jacksonville and provided the fodder for his Saturday symposium session.

In the mid-nineteenth century, blue pills (known as blue mass) were given for any of a number of ailments. These pills contained elemental mercury, and Lincoln took them. Of course, we now know no one should take a substance as toxic as mercury.

Hirschhorn’s research shows the impact the use of mercury and the decision to stop taking it had on Lincoln’s health, his life and, yes, even on the way he ran our country. The best of Hirschhorn’s work is his closing, when he raises yet another Lincoln “what if” question. But I’m not going to spoil it for you. You’ll want to read the paper yourself and you can on his website,

A couple of unexpected twists
Okay, now you’re confused, aren’t you? You thought I said this fellow was a doctor, but his website has “poet” in the name.

Yep, this guy is a renaissance man – not only saving the world and searching for answers in the past, but writing powerful poems today. I’ll tell you about some of them and some of Hirschhorn’s other creative work in a future article.

But, for now, there’s just one more little twist which adds to the power of this story. When he was just a child, Norbert Hirschhorn was a Holocaust survivor, escaping with his parents. I think the world is pretty lucky that refugee couple and their young son made it to freedom. This man is leaving his mark, and it's in indelible ink.

Looking back – looking forward
As I told a coworker of my new Lincoln friend and discoveries about how full his life has been, I was once again on a cloud. I knew when I began pursuing my Lincoln passion in earnest that, like those paths on campus, mine would sometimes intersect at crazy angles with people I’d never expected.

I knew I’d meet world-renowned Lincoln scholars, and I have. They’re the greatest, most supportive group of people I’ve ever met. Yet, what I’ve also found is that among the ranks of Lincoln buffs are people like Sacha Newley, Stedman Graham, Richard Dreyfuss and Norbert Hirschhorn with their own special stories. And this Lincoln buff cherishes the privilege of sharing them. Thanks, Bert, for yours.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

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