The Soul of a Caring Profession: Remembering the Stanfords in a Time of Pandemic

  • Chow, Harrison, MD
| Apr 30, 2020

Harrison_Chow“The children of California shall be our children”- Leland Stanford, Sr.

When I started medical school at Stanford in 1989, I was told by fellow students of the Stanford History Museum on campus.  One of the oldest buildings on the campus, the museum was a supposedly gaudy Greek structure, built in the grandeur that one would have expected from the railroad fortune Stanfords. Here artifacts from the Stanfords resided, and included furniture, clothes and jewelry as well as other preserved knickknacks.  

Alas within those first weeks the Loma Prieta Earthquake destroyed the Museum and I would not get to visit. Not a big loss I thought at the time, there was an entire medical career ahead of me, another time.

At the time, the Medical School and Stanford Hospital were isolated on the northern side of the giant campus, merely a small part of the mission of Stanford, an anomalous portal of the general population in an elite ivory tower. With a limited patient population in the bucolic surrounding Palo Alto, I would get questions like “Why have a hospital or medical school here at Stanford” during off campus courses and rotations.? 

At the time, there was the explosive ascent of the World Wide Web. Yahoo and Google were being founded literally on campus, while I was rounding on sick patients at the Palo Alto VA; who really wants to see a patient?  A Seattle company called Amazon was just coming into its own, as I was plugging away covering trauma as resident anesthesiologist in some blood-spattered OR at San Francisco General Hospital. The tech boom was on and being a physician seemed like a career afterthought in Silicon Valley.

It wouldn’t be until decades later, as a practicing anesthesiologist, that I would return to the Stanford campus again, this time very much as a tourist. The Stanford Museum had been rebuilt and was open again. I had felt a missing historical hole from my medical student days, I really looked forward to finding out about the Stanfords. I packed up my young boys for the trip to Palo Alto and decided to make a day of it.

As I wandered through the rebuilt Stanford Museum, I first learned of the tragedy that befell the Stanford family. In 1884 the family had been traveling through Europe with their only child, 15-year old Leland Stanford, Jr when he became sick from a typhoid pandemic in Italy. Despite the best efforts of physicians, he passed away in Florence after being ill for several weeks. The knowledge and technology for his care did not exist yet.

The Stanfords at the time were very much American royalty. A railroad baron, Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Stanford, had amassed a great fortune, and were considered one of the wealthiest families, if not the wealthiest family, in the entire world at the time.   They were one of the largest landowners in California in the late 1800s, with palatial estates in San Francisco and Sacramento, and of course a sprawling horse farm in Palo Alto.

The_Doctor_Luke_Fildes_cropLeland Stanford, in particular, had bigger aspirations than just stupendous wealth. His goals included becoming one of the first governors of California, and then a US Senator preparing for a run as President of the United States. This greater ambition, the ambition of great power on top of great wealth, seemed to come apart with the death of their only child, their son Leland Stanford Junior.   

Standing inside the Stanford Museum, in front of the official stately portraits of the Stanford family, reading their history, I’m struck how the family trajectory changed with Junior’s death. The story of Leland Stanford, the man who would become President, of uber-generational wealth seemed to stop. But Jane Stanford’s ambition, born of unspeakable grief, seemed to have just begun.

Gone were material and monarchal ambitions, replaced with a particular focus on a farmland trust in then remote Palo Alto, and an educational foundation. One of the first actions of the land trust was to collect artifacts and try to preserve the history of the rapidly disappearing Ohlone Native Americans. The Stanford land trust, the horse farm, was eventually to become Stanford University.

As I stood before the giant stately portrait of Jane Stanford, the empathy of a mother’s Jane-Stanfordlove began to run through me. Enormous sadness ran through me, as my kids ran around the museum playing a game of hide-and-seek and the elderly volunteer docent gave me irritated looks, I felt the searing pain of the Stanfords.  I allowed myself to imagine what losing one of my children would be like and my heart felt heavy and my legs weak.  The loss of an only child - unimaginable.

I imagined that fateful night, their only child, lying dehydrated in a hospital room breathing ever more shallowly. Junior would have been unconscious at the time, barely able to breath, every breath  weaker than the last.  Junior would have been surrounded by physicians, nurses, all powerless to stop his death. That night, faced with their son’s imminent passing, I imagine the Stanfords would have taken time to pray the same prayer together. Something like this.

“Dear God in Heaven would you look out for my son? Please show him mercy, please spare his life. I will be a better person, I will be good to my fellow humanity. Please O’Lord spare his life, take my life, my soul in return, but please save my son’s. Please Lord.”

The last gasp of a prayer, I assume would have been one of humility, a family’s upward ambition becoming extinct. All the wealth, all the power, all the medical knowledge of the time, rendered insignificant with Junior’s last breath.

As I stood under Jane Stanford’s portrait, now no longer a medical student but an experienced physician and anesthesiologist with my own sons, I imagined what my conversation with her would have been. We had been meaning to meet earlier, but an earthquake had intervened.

“Can you save my child?” her portrait seemed to have asked me, as Jane Stanford did that fateful night to the physicians surrounding her over a hundred years ago.

I meet that request with pensive thought. “Yes, I believe I can,” I offered quietly in the museum, “There is an entire medical school and entire medical center here, named after your son that can.”

Jane Stanford’s portrait eyes are pensive but piercing. “What therapy would be required to save Junior?”

“I think broad spectrum antibiotics and IV fluids will do it, also a vaccine exists that could have prevented an infection in the first place, I could look it up online, Yahoo or Google?”.

I explain to her portrait that, that there are two search engines, that allow you to search all available knowledge on the planet, both of them invented at her university.

After a few minutes on my iPhone, I have an answer. “Yes, we could save your son, we have the means to save your son”.  

The iPhone device, perplexes Jane Stanford.  “What is that?”, she asks as I’m scrolling through my phone. “It’s an iPhone, a mobile device that can connect to most medical knowledge in the world. It was developed a few miles away from here.”

The enormity of the technology and the moment, strikes Jane Stanford, “you can save Junior, could you save other typhoid patients?”

“Yes we can, the technology to treat typhoid fever is cheap and available,” I said. “Your old horse farm now has a medical school, 2 large modern hospitals and a giant medical group that can treat your son and others too.”

My imagined conversation ended then, when in my haze the docent pulled my sleeve asking me to get control over my rowdy, still-playing kids.  

How far we had come. We could treat, cure and prevent with relatively cheap modern medical technology a disease that had killed the only child of arguably the wealthiest and most powerful American family just over a hundred years ago.

I took one last look at Jane Stanford’s portrait. I felt empowered as a physician. I promise you I will try my best.

In the hundred plus years later since Junior’s death, the Western world had fought valiantly against the infectious world, defeating it with clean water, vaccines and antibiotics, antiviral and antiparasitic medications. The modern medical world has moved on to other pressing medical concerns, chronic disease, cancer and diseases of aging.  

Or so we thought. With COVID-19, an ancient scourge has returned, a pandemic poised to kill millions. We, as a profession, have been here before.

An entire university, named in a moment of grief for a life snuffed out by a typhoid pandemic, was memorialized in the grief of a mother and a father. Leland Stanford JUNIOR University.  

That university medical school and medical center, despite being on the periphery of the campus, is very much central to the founding mission of the university. The Stanford’s university would go on to become the epicenter of Silicon Valley, probably one of the most transformative economic movements in human history to date.

But the founding event was love for a son dying in a pandemic. Not money, not power, but love. Modern medicine and technology that could have saved him was created out of an act of love.

As the uncertainty and personal panic surrounds the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s useful and informative to remember our fragile and humble state of humanity. We face an ancient enemy, microbial pandemic infection. Humanity needs us more than ever.   

Today, as panic brims below the surface all around us,  I remember Jane Stanford’s portrait. Can you save them? Can you save them all?

If you are reading this article, as a medical provider, you are very much central to the foundations of our entire society - our beloved society would collapse without you.     Perhaps soon you are donning scrubs, a mask, or even a medical spacesuit as you prepare to go to the OR, ICU, the medical floor or the ER. Lives are at stake. Love is at stake. Millions of prayers, being cast every night, to be answered.

 “Can you save them?”  

In the end, I expect Jane Stanford museum portrait and all, along with other grieving families from pandemics of the past, would very much approve.

You can find out more about the Stanford Museum here :

Harrison Chow, M.D., M.S. is a frequent contributor to the CSAOF.  He is an Associate Professor of Clinical Anesthesia, Stanford Medical School.   He is also a former Department of Anesthesia Chair of Good Samaritan Hospital and is a current Delegate for the Hospital-Based Practice Forum at the California Medical Association.


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  1. Sue Carlisle | Apr 30, 2020
    Harrison:  I really appreciated your musings.  Thank you 

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