Jacob Werne, my paternal grandmother’s favorite brother and my father’s favorite uncle (1910-1959)

My father, Jacob Werne

Joellen Smolove (MD) Menlo Park, CA

 June 1993

My father, Jacob Werne, died in 1959, at the age of 49, when I was eleven years old. When I was nine he was stationed in Colorado, two thousand miles from our home in New York City, doing top-secret medical research as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army for the Korean War effort. Despite his long absence we were very close — I was his “pal”, his avid correspondent and admirer. One of my earliest memories, around age three, is of looking at an office plaque of my Dad’s inscribed “J. Werne, M.D.” and thinking that i, too, would be “J. Werne, M.D” when I grew up.

My father was a brilliant, charismatic man, gifted in many areas. He completed high school at the age of fourteen, taught for a year at a Hebrew School, finished college at seventeen, then went on to Baylor Medical College in Houston, Texas, where he graduated so young, at twenty, that he had to wait for his license to practice medicine until his twenty first birthday. He pursued specialty training in Pathology in New York City, living with his older brother Ben, who at the time, was a rabbi with a congregation in Queens. By the time my mother, Dr. Irene Garrow, met him in 1937 (she hd just graduated NYU School of Medicine and had started a rotating internship at Queens General Hospital where he was one of her first teachers.) Jacob was Chief of Pathology at several hospitals in Queens and Assistant Medical Examiner as well.

 An enormously energetic man, he was very productive in his practice and his research. The scientific investigations he conducted in the 1920s and 1940s, much of which were undertaken and published with my mother, also a pathologist, was on the subject of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. For many years these unexpected and tragic deaths of apparently healthy babies were considered to be due to parental negligence. My father and mother were among the first researchers to challenge this view and to present, on the basis of their autopsy findings, hypotheses about a viral etiology which still have scientific relevance today. “Jake” was an exacting boss to work for, with high standards for all his colleagues and coworkers — though none as high as those he applied to himself. The notion that many other folks were satisfied with mediocrity puzzled and often eluded him, hampering his capacity to be realistic in his expectations of others. Nonetheless, he was beloved by many, a man who inspired great confidence among his colleagues and employees who called him “Chief.” I remember hearing that my father had a “silver tongue”. He had a magnifidscnt speaking voice, rich and resonant, and a marvelous command of the English language, especially on his feet. 

My sister Naomi, who is a criminal lawyer now practicing in Queens after a ten year stint in the Queens District Attorney’s office as Chief the Bureaus of Extraditions and Forfeitures, has inherited his appreciation of language and his gift for public speaking.

My dad was a deeply compassionate and kind man — reaching out to hose in difficulty, emotional, financial or physical. Long after his death, for all the years of my childhood and even to this day, our family has received notes and cards (often during the holiday season) from patients, friends and physician whose lives he had touched. Many of his grateful patients were the families of “Rh babies.” Until about fifty years ago Rh positive babies born to Rh negative mothers became very ill at birth and often died of complications of the antigen-antibody reaction. (“rh” is a factor in the blood just like “A’, “B” or “O”). My Dad was one of the first to pioneer the complex procedure these infants underwent at birth to remove the dangerous antigen-antibody complexes by filtering the newborn’s blood.

Jacob was committed to his work and involved in the politics of medicine –he was an active member of the Queens County Medical Society — but also very much a citizen of the world, concerned with the underdog, those less fortunate than himself. I learned from his about the beginnings of Labor organizing, the early Unions, the Song of Joe Hill. He always supported, financially, a Jewish foster child abroad. I remember hearing about one boy in France, another in Israel. Both of these children he not only corresponded with but also visited when he travelled to their homelands.

One of my Dad’s greatest extracurricular pleasures was listening to and performing (in his youth) the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. I am told he was exceptionally gifted in languages and literature (both my Uncle Ben and his wife Rose used to say that Jake should have been the one to go into Law) — and loved performing those witty satires of the late 19th century English life. When I was about six, our family began attending productions of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company (the original Gilbert and Sullivan Company from England) which toured New York every couple of years. My mother also became an “aficionada.” My family has continued the tradition on the West Coast, attending productions of the Stanford Savoyards on the University campus here.

Jacob was fluent in Hebrew, both spoken and written, and loved the language. He made at least one trip to Israel that I can recall. Our family lights the graceful brass menorah every Hanukkah that he brought me back from that trip. I was unable to learn much from my Dad about his heritage, but I remember vividly his delight in beginning to teach me the Hebrew alphabet and how I signed my letter to him with my name in Hebrew. My mother was not raised in any religious tradition, but this did not stop my grandfather Isaac Werne, an orthodox rabbi, from supporting this marriage of his son wholeheartedly; “If Jacob has chosen her, that is good enough for me” he is purported to have declared, even before hemet her and her father, both of whom he throughly enjoyed.

My father was not a man who was particularly concerned with convention or the outward trappings of things. He participated in our non-religious Christmas and Easter gatherings at my Polish grand-auntie’s house (“Auntie had journeyed from Poland when my mother was six to help her brother care for his four motherless children after his wife died of tuberculosis) but he did got to Temple on the High Holy Days. I remember clearly the feel and texture of the prayer shawls that he kept carefully in a special drawer. It is my sense that his experience of himself as Jew and as a human was very deep, private and generous in spirit.

“Jake” was the quintessential absent-minded Professor. Family lore has it that he was so enthusiastic about a birthday cake at one of our parties that he ate his whole piece with all the trappings– cake, icing, candles and all! At one point, my mother completely reuphol- stered the chairs and sofa in the living room. Weeks later she asked her husband if he’d notice anything different about the decor. Of course he had not!

As I write, I realize there are many “facts’ about my Dad that are not available to me. He had many honors and accomplishments despite a life cut short by his premature death. I hope I will be able to learn more from some of my as yet undiscovered relatives.

As for myself and my family, I am a psychiatrist, in private practice in Palo Alto, with a subspecialty for the past twenty years in Eating Disorders. I am also Clinical Associated Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford University Medical School Department of Psychiatry, where I do some teaching. I did my medical training at Yale University School of Medicine, which is where I met my husband John, also a Psychiatrist in private practice and on the clin- ical faculty at Stanford, a gifted musician, horticulturalist and collector of exotic plants.