Thursday, January 10, 2019


In ages past before books or manuscripts were available, people got their entertainment by watching plays. The ancient Greeks wrote comedies and tragedies. For example in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta banded together to refuse all sexual favors to induce their men to stop constant wars. Playwrights provide the actors with a script describing the cast of characters, the setting, their lines, and when to enter or exit. With the advent of books, such scripts were published and became available to the reading public.

The point of all this is that anyone can choose to read the script of a play by a well-known playwright. Why would anyone want to read the script of a play as an alternative to reading a novel, a memoir, or other forms of fiction? A major difference between a play and a novel is that the former is almost entirely dialogue whereas the latter often has long pages of narrative, summarizing the character’s thoughts or actions along with dialogue.  Most novels require 17 or more hours to learn the characters and the plot with all its twists and turns. On the other hand, the scripts of most plays can be completed in 3-5 hours with all the benefits of a novel. Listed below are plays that I have enjoyed reading.

Samuel Becket      Waiting for Godot   A tragicomedy in two acts.
Anton Chekhov      The Cherry Orchard 
T.S. Eliot              The Cocktail Party
Henrik Ibsen         A Doll’s House   Norwegian Modernism
Arthur Miller         The Crucible   The Salem Puritan Witch trials
Eugene O’Neill      Long Day’s Journey into Night
Shakespeare         Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet 
G.B. Shaw            Pygmalion  (basis for My Fair Lady)
Neil Simon           The Odd Couple
Thornton Wilder     Our Town
Tennessee Williams  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Try one of the above. You might like it. I’d like to hear from someone who did.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Shortly before I retired from Columbia, I had a phone call from a colleague who was my opposite number at another hospital. We had served together on several of national committees and had become friends. “I need your help,” he said. “I am up to my neck in cases and a new one has come along that I don’t have the time for right now. Could you possibly take it?”
“Cases, what kind of cases?” I asked.
“You know, as an expert witness.”
“But I don’t know anything about being an expert witness.”
“Don’t worry, just contact the lawyers, and they will tell you what to do.”
“Ok, I will give it a try”.

The next day, I drove to Hartford and met the attorney. He described the case and what he needed, and I agreed to try. A few days later a number of cartons arrived at my house. Each was packed full of medical records, and I set about examining them to arrive at an opinion. This was the first case in what would be fifteen years of my next career.

I learned how to advertise my services. With each case I learned more about our legal system. Unlike science, the legal system is not a search for truth. In civil cases, the side with the preponderance of evidence wins. Sometimes I worked for the defendant and other times for the plaintiff, the party claiming injury. Over more than fifteen years, I worked on eighty cases.

I learned techniques for dealing with opposing lawyers during rapid fire cross examination and their tricky questions like “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

Over the years, certain cases stand out in my memory. One such case was working for the defendant, an obstetrician who delivered an infant who grew up somewhat mentally handicapped. The mother claimed that the doctor had let labor proceed too long. I suspected the problem might be due to an infection by an organism carried by cats. When it was determined that the mother did indeed have a cat, I requested tests on the child that were positive for that disease, thus freeing the doctor from the plaintiff’s claim.

In another case, a man was treated for kidney stones. Eleven days later he became ill with fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and joint and muscle aches. The record showed evidence of spider bites, and I provided the attorney for the plaintiff evidence that the man’s demise was probably due to the bite of a brown recluse spider rather than the treatment for kidney stones.

Another case required me to travel to Australia to testify in a case involving a class action against an international company that manufactured an intrauterine contraceptive device. The trip to Sydney was a long one, but I travelled business class. Australia uses the British legal system and the barristers wear wigs and black robes and have to bow when entering or leaving the courtroom.

The last case I will tell you about was in a Texas court specializing in class action suits. The law firm I was working for represented the plaintiffs and was not expected to win this case. The trial was held on a hot afternoon, and the courtroom was warm. I was on the stand, testifying about a case when I observed several of the jurors nodding off. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the judge was dozing, and I did something unusual by breaking a strict rule that a witness must never address the judge. I turned to the judge and asked “ Your honor, do you understand the significance of a word I had used?” The judge shook his head there upon I delivered a brief lecture designed to inform him and the jury about the case. It turned out that we won the case, and the judge cited my testimony in his decision.

I attended many depositions and a number of trials. I found the adversarial process to be stimulating and enjoyed the competition.

Eventually my loss of vision precluded further work as an expert witness. From time to time colleagues who were themselves asked to perform as experts would contact me for details as to how to go about it. In response to these inquires I wrote a book. This one was non-fiction and is called The Biomedical Scientist as Expert Witness. ASM Press 2006. This book continues to sell a few copies every year, and it is the only one of my books with that distinction. Go figure.

Monday, November 26, 2018


The newspapers recently reported an epidemic of Ebola fever in the Republic of the Congo. Ebola is one of the viral hemorrhagic fevers that has a high mortality. This outbreak, with 267 cases and 170 deaths, is the worst ever experienced in that country. This number pales when compared with the pandemic of Ebola that occurred in 2014 in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The number of victims far exceeded the available beds and shelters and infected persons had to be turned away. In response to a plea from President Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, President Obama dispatched nearly 3000 troops including the 36th Engineering Brigade and elements of the 101st Airborne to Liberia. The Americans set out to do what they were good at – building. They constructed wooden Ebola Treatment Units in Monrovia and the surrounding countryside.

At the time of this outbreak there were no vaccines or treatment available other than supportive. The Ebola virus attacks the blood vessels causing hemorrhage, shock, and often death.  The virus is present in every body fluid, tears, saliva, mother’s milk, blood, urine, vaginal fluid, semen, and feces. If any of these reaches even the slightest break in the skin, infection is sure to follow. Health workers, mostly Doctors Without Borders and volunteers from other countries must wear personal protective equipment, PPE. Work in the PPE is limited to about one hour due to the heat.

By the time the West African pandemic ended, Liberia experienced 4,806 deaths, Guinea suffered 3,955 and Sierra Leone had 2,536 for a total of 11,297!

Ebola virus is believed to be present in some macaque monkeys and the first human infection probably occurred when an infected monkey was eaten in 1976 in Sudan.

Ebola infection occurred in the United States when imported macaque monkeys were being dissected by workers from a military unit studying biological weapons.

A complete discussion may be found in my book The Ebola Connection. The book describes the lives of two brothers tragically shattered by war and calamity. One is wounded in Iraq ending his career as a combat medic until the Ebola Pandemic ranging in Africa provides him with a second chance. The other survives prison for vehicular homicide only to lose his wife and unborn daughter in childbirth. Each recovers to lead separate lives when a phone call from Australia changes everything.

Friday, November 16, 2018


In 1981 I received a letter from a Colombian physician asking to spend time in my laboratory. Dr. Alberto (last names will not be used) indicated his plan to open a clinical laboratory in Medellin and his need to learn microbiology. When I wrote to tell him I had no funds to support him, he phoned to tell me that was not a problem. He, with his wife and two young children, arrived in the U.S., rented an apartment in New Jersey, and showed up in my laboratory where he spent a year before returning to Colombia. 

Not long afterwards, another letter came from Medellin, this time from Doctor Angela, the Director of Microbiology in a hospital there. She was an internationally known mycologist. She wanted me to give a series of lectures on the normal bacterial flora of humans, under a program of the American Society for Microbiology. Connie would accompany me. In July, after taking our kids to camp, we landed in Medellin.

I gave the lectures in English but was able to respond to the questions in Spanish. I had the opportunity to meet with some Public Health Officials who related their current problem with rabies due to the bite of vampire bats. 

After the course was over, Angela gave a party for Connie and me. We were surprised to see all the women going into the bathroom to don their jewelry. We learned that it was dangerous to wear jewelry while driving, since thieves can snatch rings and bracelets at a stop sign.

Colombia is famous for emeralds, and Doctor Angela knew a friend who sold them. Connie was invited to take one of the gems over night to make her decision. The emerald cost over two thousand dollars, but Connie decided not to buy it when she learned that emeralds could shatter when dropped. 

That weekend we visited the laboratory of Dr. Alberto. Together with Alberto and his wife, we traveled to the farm of his mother-in-law in the mountains. 

I had originally planned to spend a week dove hunting in the North, but was advised not to go there because of the guerilla activity. Instead, we opted for a trip up the Amazon. 

We flew to Bogota and then to Leticia. This city, at the southern tip of the country is known as the “ass hole” of Colombia. It is well named. We spent the night in a hotel where the swimming pool resembled pea soup and the bed linens were dank. At breakfast the waitress sat on the arm of my chair to take my order, and we saw a dead horse lying in the street. We took a small boat up the river to Monkey Island where we spent the night. In the morning we were awakened by the sound of monkeys running across the tin roof of our small shelter. The next day, we traveled further up river to visit a Ticuna Indian village where we traded beads, cigarette lighters, and ballpoint pens for a necklace of piranha teeth and blow guns for the boys. The Ticunas were friendly and traded their blow gun poison to other tribes. Both sexes were completely naked except for a small skirt. 

We spent a few days in Cartagena, a lovely city on the Caribbean. We were greeted by one of the natives who held a live sloth and offered me an opportunity to hold it for a photo. Connie was experiencing some nausea from the Chloroquin we had to take to prevent malaria. We waited almost an entire day for our flight home since it turned out that Avianca had only one aircraft for the trip to New York. 

I used our experience on the Amazon for an episode in my book And Evil Shall Come

Friday, November 2, 2018


James Joyce was one of the greatest Irish writers. His novels Ulysses, the Dubiners and Finnegan’s Wake won him wide acclaim.  Other outstanding Irish writers are Frank Delaney, who’s Ireland, Tipperary and Shannon and Frank McCourt’s  Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis are widely read. I have read and enjoyed most of the above.  W. B. Yeats is my favorite poet. When I read their lines I can hear the characters speaking. I like to listen to Irish being spoken, whether a brogue or just a slight blarney. As a matter of fact, I like the Irish culture.

What is remarkable is how such a rich culture developed under adverse conditions. Ireland was invaded and occupied centuries ago by the English. The Irish were basically an agricultural people speaking Gaelic. The occupation was often severe and brutal.

The Rebellion of 1798 failed, but a Rebellion in 1916 established the Irish Republic.

Irish Music is diverse with songs like Danny Boy and the wonderful pub music of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers as well as The Chieftains. Some songs of failed uprisings are sad like Gavin Bury. There are many humorous ones like Meg Flaherty’s Drake, and others extolling whiskey like Whiskey You’re the Devil. (Irish whiskey is unique, but ale and Porter are also popular.)

I have always wanted to visit Ireland, but I don’t think that will happen. However, there is a small Irish enclave just down the street from where I live.  Mr. Michael Maher is one of its occupants. Michael is one of my faithful readers, and I treasure his comments. Perhaps sometime he will walk over for a visit. I happen to have an unopened bottle of Jameson’s, which I would be delighted to explore with him.

Friday, October 19, 2018


In 1982 I was still a professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, yet on the night of August 20th, I sat on a jet bound for Taiwan, the Island Nation contested by China. Sitting along side of me was Dr. George Chang, my last post-doctoral fellow. After completing his 2 year fellowship with me, Dr. Chang was able to get the Government of Taiwan to invite me to give a series of lectures at National Taiwan University Hospital known as Taida. We landed in Taipei in the early morning hours, and after clearing customs, we were led to a waiting limo. We arrived at Taida, the largest hospital in Taipei with 2400 beds. The hospital director greeted us and showed us to our guest rooms in the VIP suite. We were left for the rest of the day to recover from jet lag. 

That evening George and I were guests at a welcome banquet. The dining room had two large round tables, each with six waiting diners and an empty chair. George was seated at one of the tables and I at the other. After a welcoming speech by the director, the meal began. I noticed a small glass at my place filled with Chinese brandy. One of my fellow diners addressed me. “Dr. Ellner, Ganbey! (Cheers!)” He drank his brandy in one gulp, laid the glass on its side on his outstretched palm to show me. I responded with “Ganbey”, drank the brandy, and laid the glass in my palm. Within the next hour, each of my fellow diners toasted me in the same manner, and I responded to each one. When the meal was half over, George and I were obliged to switch seats. The toasting routine started again and when the meal ended, I was not quite drunk, but so impaired that I had to be helped to my room. This made our host very happy. 

The following Monday I gave my first lecture to about one hundred doctors all of whom understood English. I tried, in vain, to convince them to be discriminating in their use of antibiotics. I explained that each antibiotic had unique properties and the patient’s “bug” had to be isolated and tested. I lectured to this group every day for the next two weeks, but I don’t believe I converted any of them. When their patients failed to recover, they just chose another doctor. 

George and I wanted to visit the ancient Chinese garden at the summit of Alishan, the Dragon Mountain, to experience the sight of the sun rising above the clouds. We found the railway and boarded a narrow –gauge rickety train that ran to the summit. The trip took five hours. 

As we climbed, we left the rice paddies and entered the terrace with thousands of tea plants. We entered a jungle landscape. As the train continued its steep climb the landscape changed to pine trees, entering the cloud layer, finally emerging into the sunshine at the summit where there was a Buddhist monastery and a small hotel. We dined on a simple meal of rice and vegetables and shared a tiny bedroom. 

We were awakened at 5 am, drank hot tea, and a guide led us along a path to a clearing, on one side of which was a steep precipice. We waited shivering as it gradually grew lighter, and we could see a solid deck of clouds far below us. Suddenly, the sun emerged and rose over the clouds, a truly spectacular sight. After the sunrise, we returned to the hotel for breakfast, and then we were free to explore the very unique landscape that is Alishan. We spent the day wondering through the mostly wooded garden. One of the trees we saw was said to be a thousand years old. This was a trip worth remembering. 

Back in Taipei, George and I had a few days to ourselves. I was invited to a hospital out in the country to give another lecture. Following my lecture, George and I were taken by the hospital’s doctors and nurses for a thank you banquet. We sat at the usual round table where I was seated next to the Chief Doctor. He confided me “Dr. Ellner, we have a big surprise for you.” During the meal, I became aware of a pretty young woman who stood behind my seat during the meal and helped me by cutting my food. When the meal was over, the Chief Doctor turned to me, smiled, and said “And now, Dr.Ellner, the surprise.”  He indicated the young woman. I soon realized that I was expected to go off with her and enjoy her favors while the rest of the group waited. I said to George, “You’ve got to help me.” George replied “No problem, Dr. Ellner, they pay.” I protested that I was too tired so the disappointed Chief Doctor told the young woman to sing for us. After she sang a few songs, the Chief Doctor then demanded that I sing. Stunned, the best I could do was “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. 

The next day, George and I headed back to New York.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


I believe that memoirs are the most popular of all the various forms of non-fiction including biographies and essays.  Memoirs are the thoughts and recollections of the writer. They are usually associated with an emotional experience or feeling. Autobiographies are the complete story of the writer’s life.

I recently read a terrific memoir, one of the best I ever read. It was recommended by President Obama and called Educated by Tara Westover.  The protagonist is Tara, a young woman who writes about her life growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons. Survivalist refers to their belief that they will be the only people left after the “end of days”. Tara was born in the small family home in the mountains of Idaho and like her siblings was home schooled and forced to work in her father’s scrap business. Despite these hardships, she was able to graduate from BYU, earn a Master’s degree form Harvard and a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

There are numerous lists on line of memoirs considered to be essential reads. The memoirs described below are those that I have read and really enjoyed. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot is the intriguing story of two Irish veterinarians and their patients. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen describes an aristocratic woman’s experience on a coffee plantation in darkest Africa. Deserted by her husband, she falls in love with a white hunter and becomes involved in schooling the natives and a war. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is filled with the author’s anecdotes of his early life in poverty stricken Limerick, Ireland and living in New York City with an alcoholic father. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom recounts the touching visits of a former student with his dying professor. Walden by Henry David Thoreau is the classic story of a non-conformist philosopher who abandons city life to camp alone for a year near Walden Lake in Massachusetts. One of his oft repeated thoughts are “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away . . .”

One of my memoirs is called Thursday Nights at Bloomies describing humorous experiences during my visits as a divorced professor to a famous New York department store. It can be found in my collection of short stories Bright Figures, Sinister Shadows.

I would welcome questions or comments from my readers who may remain anonymous if they wish. I promise to respond.