William Buchanan Wherry (1875-1936)
By Reverend Jesse Halsey
Born of missionaries in India, in 1875, raised in Pittsburgh and Chicago, wanderer into the Philippines, Japan, and Hawaii, and dead in Cincinnati in the night of November first, 1936—such is the material sequence in the life of William Wherry. Accompanying it, like a shadow, is the story of a soul.
The soul spoke Hindoostani before it could lisp English—and never forgot that tongue. And forever after was it thus to speak more of the mystery of life and less of life’s obviousnesses.
At fourteen he was catapulted into the rough surroundings of Chicago’s offside; at seventeen made a student of the classics in conformist Pennsylvania, to learn there, nonconformity.
Then back—because more convenient—to the Middle West, where he was to walk with more gods sunk like himself in the mire of man’s life on Halsted Street—Ludvig Hektoen, Frank Billings, Edwin Oakes Jordan. Thereafter he lived for a season, with Theobald Smith. Now blessed with the hallowed oil of their approval, he entered the fight on his own, out where the frontiersman struggles ‘gainst miasma, ‘gainst pestilence, and creeping death. Thus for three years did he labor in Manila where fever ran high, where suffering was great, and men spat blood, black.
Veteran, he returned to America, sans fat, sans medals, sans the frogs on a military officer’s coat, to apologize that so lowly of the Lord could not set fish before his friends.
Without a job, then with a job, with, money even, he bought a diamond as tribute to the girl who for thirty years was to bring him peace, comfort, and the quiet of restful background. That was home.
But his life and work lay—as it had always lain—outside. And so forward once more to risk death ‘midst rats, ‘midst fleas, and bubosed men. The end? The finding that on the West Coast plague stalks in the ochred hills and in the pretty skins of yellow ground squirrels.
In 1909, medical Cincinnati felt the need of repair. Its spirit was drooping and blood was needed. Who better than this youngster of many countries and many views? And for twenty-seven years he furnished it.
Here he labored, and delightedly. So it was that he made large contribution to that play which had long intrigued him, the battle of all living things against environment and the battle of each against the other. Thus he became with the Dutchman Beijerinck world master in a field, and of those few who see not fact but philosophy.
In 1913, he recognized an eye infection in a patient as identical with a disease of California’s ground squirrels; and tularemia in man was born. Unknown, it had long been the nemesis of the rabbit hunter and the butcher to whom, after infection, life was a despairing gamble. But it was less so, by much, when Wherry finished with a serum against it, in these Middle States.
The development of a resistance-bearing serum in this instance was, however, but one of a set of them. When yet a medical student he had pushed forward the vaccine studies of Pasteur and Wright and in the free moments since he had applied himself further to this task. Thus by better winging of the offenders did he lift the odds in staphylococcus, streptococcus, and typhoid infection.
When the ‘20s of this century appeared the urge of the Orient came again upon him. Had he not written in 1913: “Encircling the earth, between 30 degrees N. and 30 degrees South are tropical and subtropical regions—the most beautiful, the most fertile, the most richly endowed portions of the globe. Time and again they have been invaded . . . Stricken by strange pestilences, the invaders have disappeared . . . there lies ‘the white man’s grave.’”
And better to cheat it, for a season, he went where East touches West; then year after year, into Mexico, Hawaii, the Philippines, or Japan to study their amoebae, their worms, their sprue, their leprosy. All life was his field and all life fell under the scrutiny of his piercing sight, to reveal itself, times without number, as to the confessor. Thus he learned how to grow the leprosy out of rats and later out of man.
In the midst of these labors and in the circle of those he loved best, his eyes closed to the everlasting sleep. So today he is no longer one of us, but one with the glorious company of God’s chosen.
Because of his being, men know more and think differently. The voluntary adherent of no orthodoxy, life made him slave to its greatest—the truth itself. This he used to whisper to students sitting close, to colleagues, to those who were the intimates among the friends whose number was legion. Out of his smile the despairing drew hope; out of his mind, healing; from his somewhat frail body his associates tapped strength. And so to this figure that has walked earlier down the highway, we cannot say, farewell. We lift our arms to cry: Hail!