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Bones were so prominent in my childhood that it’s no wonder I love the story of the Dixwell brothers digging up John Dixwell’s bones. My father was an orthopedist and so was his father before him. My brother became an endocrinologist who researched the ways bones take up and release calcium. His nickname is Dr. Calcium. My father was known as Dr. Sawbones.

Bones were in the attic of our big three-story brick house, the house my father had grown up in. Many things had been left behind by his parents, when they moved to a goat farm and we moved into the house they’d lived in since 1916. There was a real human ribcage attached to an iron hook in the attic, and barrister bookcases full of skulls and entire skeletons of small animals. I liked to go up in the attic by myself and see what I could find. In one room I discovered my grandfather’s notes from Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1907. There were also his microscope and small wooden boxes containing glass slides of his careful, paper-thin cross sections of liver, kidney, heart, and lung tissue.

Grandpa had been born with a clubfoot, and when it was operated on just before he went to college he was so fascinated by everything the surgeon had done that he described it in detail in his diary. Later, he developed treatments for children with clubfeet. In our cavernous basement, giant drawers that I struggled mightily to pull open held little casts, neatly sawed in two, that Grandpa had made for various of his young patients. I would take off my shoes, and try on a series of them, until I found a set that fit.

In the same drawer where I keep John Dixwell’s key to Dover Castle, I have a small wooden leg that I found in a box many years after my father’s death. I needed a magnifying class to figure out from the faded text at the top of the leg that Dad had carved it for Grandpa as a birthday present, in 1928, when Dad was 14 and Grandpa, on August 20, was turning 48.

I hate to think of how many legs Dad had to amputate during his time in the South Pacific as a battalion surgeon in the Second World War. Later, he must have used amputated limbs for research and for his teaching at Harvard Medical School. Once, my mother got a leg of lamb out of our giant deep freezer. She was going to roast it for our Sunday dinner, but when she unwrapped it, it was no leg of lamb. It was a human leg. Dad had run out of space in his freezer at the Massachusetts General Hospital and brought it home. Hastily, she rewrapped it and put it back in the freezer.

I was never horrified by this story. My childhood gave me a deep respect for science, for careful research, for the importance of bones, the armature beneath our muscles and skin upon which everything depends.


Posted on: Nov. 15, 2021

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