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Teacher’s humanity, defiance touched many lives

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WASHINGTON — Hermann Lisco, a gifted scientist and legendary teacher, died last week. He was a quiet man from an unquiet place. German-born, he received his medical degree from the University of Berlin in 1936, came to the United States to teach pathology at Johns Hopkins University, and was recruited to the Manhattan Project. In secret, he worked with a team of scientists at the University of Chicago studying the biological effects of a strange new human creation: plutonium.

Later, he was flown to Los Alamos to study the first person ever to be killed by acute radiation poisoning. Lisco performed the autopsy, and, later, those of eight other victims of accidents at Los Alamos. His findings were a scientific milestone, the first published account of the effects of acute radiation exposure on the human organism.

A decade later, he was instrumental in producing a landmark United Nations report on the effects of radiation on humans and on the environment. But Dr. Lisco was more than a scientist. At Harvard Medical School, where he was a professor, he became the most beloved and influential mentor of an entire generation of students.

His home was always alive with the sound of students. He and his wife Lisa (a formidable intellect in her own right and daughter of James Franck, winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in physics) ran a combination halfway house and salon.

Hermann's goal was to keep us human, in touch with a larger world and larger possibilities. He did so, in part, by example. He was what used to be called a humanist: With his supple and sophisticated mind, he discoursed easily on science, medicine, art, literature, politics, history.

His belief in broad horizons was more than theoretical. He was instrumental in setting up a traveling scholarship for students to take a year off and see the world. He arranged for Michael Crichton to be given the freedom as a fourth year medical student to research and write books.

As for me, well, he made my career possible. Toward the end of my freshman year, I was paralyzed in a serious accident. Hermann, then associate dean of students, came to see me in intensive care. He asked what he could do for me. I told him that, to keep disaster from turning into ruin, I had decided to stay in school and with my class.

If Hermann had doubts — I would not have blamed him: no one with my injury had ever gone through medical school — he never showed it. He told me he would do everything possible to make it happen.

He did. Within a few days, a hematology professor, fresh from lecturing to my classmates on campus, showed up at my bedside and proceeded to give me the lecture, while projecting his slides on the ceiling above me. (I was flat on my back in traction, but I'm sure Hermann had instructed everybody to proceed as if such teaching techniques were entirely normal.)

He then went to work behind the scenes: persuading professors to let me take their tests orally (I did not learn to handwrite for another three years); getting me transferred for my 12 months of inpatient rehab to a Harvard teaching hospital so that I could catch up at night with my class' second-year studies and rejoin it in the third year; convincing (ordering?) skeptical attending physicians to allow their patients to be cared for by the student in the wheelchair with the exotic medical instruments (the extra-long stethoscope Hermann had made for me was a thing of beauty).

Hermann did all this quietly, without fanfare. At graduation, he took not only pride but a kind of mischievous delight in our unspoken conspiracy. We broke no rules, but we bent a few, especially the stupid ones. I'm sure he liked that.

That was Hermann's great gift: He was a man of orderly habits and orderly mind but he never flinched from challenging the orderly. In Germany, he had seen order turned into malevolence. Mild mannered as he was — I never once heard him raise his voice — he was good at defiance. In Nazi Germany, Hermann married a Jew, the daughter of an early, very prominent anti-Nazi. Defiance ran in the family. Hermann's father was fired as head of Gottingen's elite high school for his opposition to the regime.

Hermann did not much respect nature's strictures either. At age 70, he was still climbing mountains in his beloved Adirondacks. At 80, he was still taking miles-long walks in the woods.

And now, just short of 90, he is gone. Those who were touched by this man, so wise and gracious and goodly, mourn him. I mourn a man who saved my life.

Washington Post Writers Group