Medical Research Cuts Questioned


S.Q. Lapius stepped gingerly off the tennis court, drenched with sweat.  His shirt clung to his undulating fat.  Perspiration drowned his brow.  His eyeglasses were misty.


“What a waste this is,” Lapius said, reaching for a drink and watching the water drain from him in rivulets.


“What a waist is right,” I said, “You were a 44 before you started to play, and you’ll be a 44 as soon as you finish that drink,” I said toweling him off to prevent the inevitable puddles that develop whenever Lapius is permitted to perspire in one place for any length of time.  


“No, Harry, I was referring to the sweat, perspiration, being a waste.”


“15 minutes of tennis isn’t exactly vigorous, Simon, but I guess it is for you,” I had recalled seeing him break into a sweat from the effort of cutting a tough steak.  “Come on, get changed.  You look like a pile of soiled laundry,” I walked him into the locker room. 


“Incidentally,” I asked, “why is sweating such a waste?”


“We will have to conserve it, Harry.  It may fast become a national resource.”


“Your drink was too strong,” I suggested.


“You are being perverse, Harry.  Or haven’t you heard?”


“Heard what?”


“That the Columbia University Presbyterian Medical Center has decided to discontinue research on subjects which called for the analysis of body secretions.”


“You josh.”


“No, my boy.  Tis truth, verily,” Lapius said struggling into his pants.  “It seems that some of the excreta and-or secreta of patients was being taken without informed consent.  That is, the researchers failed to inform the person that his stool, sweat or tears that were being examined for metabolic studies, we’ll say, on excretory rates and routes for antibiotics or other chemicals.  I guess one person sued, and won, making the subject fair game for our legal colleagues.”


“That is ridiculous, Simon.  Do you mean to tell me that such an important bastion of medical research as Columbia-Presbytarian would be intimidated by that kind of business?”


“Yes.  The civil libertarians feel that so much could be found out about an individual by examining his excreta, that unless he gave an informed consent, the research must come to a stop.  Word got around that they could show you were a drug addict, or had some disease or other.  To tell you the truth I don’t know exactly what the problem was, but apparently someone fussed, and said their sweat or urine or tear drops were personal property and could not be used indiscriminately for research.”


“So why not get informed consent, and be done with it.  After all, why close down these projects?”


“I don’t really know.  But certainly if you have to get informed consent, you raise in the patient an index of suspicion.  Maybe they just didn’t want to bother with the legality of it.”


“But certainly we seem to be coming full circle.  Between this, and the new rulings about fetal experimentation, research may well be grinding to a halt, and perhaps we are about to enter a new ‘dark ages’ where rational thought will be replaced by individual opinion.  The effort and money that the United States put into medical research during the past twenty five years was one of the noblest national acts in the history of the world.  We subsidized medical research not only here at home, but scientists in countries the world over were able to apply, and if found worthy, received research grants.  I think the entire cost was less than a billion dollars a year, and it changed the face of medical science.  Enough raw data was developed, enough techniques and instrumentation devised to last us a century or two before the new information is digested and applied.


“But it is a shame to see it coming to an end, that era of subsidy in sciences.  If it were to die of attrition, it would be bad enough, but to die under the strain that the scientists are unworthy snoopers, or even worse, as is happening in Boston, criminals, is unbearable.  The investment the United States made in medical science was a golden burden that this country bore proudly.  I think, Harry, it ranks with the Marshall plan in generosity, and will even have more long-reaching effects,” Lapius was in his shirt now, and doing his stringy bow-tie.  He started chuckling.


“I can remember,” he said, as we were walking out of the locker room, “when Churchill promised his Englishmen during the early and bitter days of the war, that he had nothing to offer them but blood, sweat and tears.  I’d like to take him up on that offer now.”


“You can’t just this minute,” I said, as we reached the lobby.


“Why not?” Lapius asked.


“Take a look at your feet,” I told him.  “You forgot your shoes.”


He turned dismayed, to reenter the locker room.  “Of course, they were the other things doctors would examine experimentally, nail parings and hair.  All off limits now.  A pity.”