Poetry reveals an extraordinary man

03/22/2014 10:43 PM

03/22/2014 11:04 PM

I came to know of him, and of his life and his work, by some accident that I cannot recall.

The name, Hans Zinsser, meant nothing to me. Nor will it, I suppose, to a reader here. Which only means that there must be in this world many individuals of great accomplishment whose virtues never receive the public notice they deserve.

Somehow, somewhere in the clutter of my work space, I came across a scrap of paper on which had been copied six lines of poetry — a farewell to his wife by a man facing imminent death. Unwilling to discard it, I’ve saved it in a drawer, and share it here:

How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone

Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,

Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.

How good that ere the winter comes, I die!

Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest.

Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.

Zinsser was born in 1878, the son of a prosperous German immigrant who owned a chemical plant in New York. The family’s means enabled him to study and travel in Europe as a young man.

Returning to the U.S., he earned a medical degree at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and later became a professor of bacteriology and immunology, first at Stanford and then at Harvard Medical School. Along with his devotion to poetry he developed a keen interest in infectious diseases.

In the early 1900s, typhus was a growing problem in many parts of the world. Working with the Red Cross, Zinsser took part in medical missions to Serbia in 1915, Russia in 1923, Mexico in 1931 and China in 1938.

Through his research, he identified the organism — carried by lice and rat fleas — that was responsible for the spread of the disease, and helped develop the vaccine that halted the typhus plague.

Along with his scientific work, he managed to pursue an active writing career, authoring several books and some 200 medical articles and publishing some of his poetry in The Atlantic Monthly.

Zinsser served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War I, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his courage in caring for wounded soldiers while under enemy fire.

In 1940 he was stricken by acute leukemia. His autobiography, “As I Remember Him,” was published in 1940 shortly before his death that year under the pseudonym R.S., the initials of a colleague he admired. It received the National Book Award for nonfiction.

A poet to the very last, he composed another eight lines of verse — an expression of gratitude for having the time to conduct his heart’s last business.

Now is death merciful. He calls me hence

Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears

Of ugly age and feeble impotence

And cruel disintegration of slow years.

Nor does he leap upon me unaware

Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,

But gives me kindly warning to prepare:

Before I go, to kiss your tears away.

My one regret is to have come so late to my acquaintance with this remarkable man and his work.

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