Virologist at Play

Author: Charles H. Calisher '61M.S.

My parents were Depression kids, growing up in New York City during some bad times in this country; they never completely recovered from the effects of the Depression or from living in New York City. My father wanted to become an engineer, but his parents believed that as a Jew he would not get into a decent college. His mother owned and operated a successful millinery business and wanted him to work for her, but instead he took on the life of a traveling salesman, selling automobile parts. He hated that work. Nonetheless, as an honest, clean-living and hard-working guy and a devoted family man, he supported the family and suggested to me that I do whatever it was I wanted to do and was capable of doing.

By the time I was 10 years old, I had made up my mind that if I did not want to do something, I wasn’t going to do it — and if I did want to do something, I was going to try to do it. Dad was proud of me and said so, but I cannot recall a day when I thought he was truly happy. Having “fun” was not part of his life, of who he was.

My parents were pleased when I graduated from a small college in Philadelphia with a degree in bacteriology, but they never seemed to understand why anyone would want to study bacteria. I next studied germ-free life techniques and viruses at Notre Dame. “How will that help anyone?” they asked.

For me, the answer is a matter of perspective. As it turns out, my training at Notre Dame and subsequent institutions educated me in all sorts of ways. I think I have been helpful by joining others in studies and development of disease diagnoses, which allows for the proper treatment of patients and the control of epidemics; identifying and characterizing newly discovered or emerging viruses; determining the status of wildlife virus infections; and predicting the expansion of virus occurrence.

Although my primary emphasis was working hard my entire professional career, I always made it a point to try to enjoy myself as best I could, whether I was in my laboratory or traveling to learn about viruses in far-flung places. In Croatia once with Jelka Vesenjak-Hirjan, the director of the University of Zagreb School of Medicine, we went to Skadar Lake near Albania to check out the ecology of the area. I walked through a fence and down a path toward the gate where I assumed the border was. A single shot rang out and kicked up some dirt 10 meters from me. I looked up to see an Albanian border guard with an automatic weapon. “You have passed the border,” he said. “Get the hell out of here.” I did. Jelka thought it was all very funny, if somewhat impolite of the guard. That wasn’t exactly fun, but it was an experience.

On another occasion, on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, I was invited by some professional fishermen friends to fish with them the next morning. After a long night of drinking excellent “black” (dark red) wine, I was awakened at 3 a.m. and walked to a boat, where I promptly fell asleep again. When I again awoke I could see the shore from the boat and assumed we were not far from the coastal island in Dalmatia from which we had set out. I asked the name of the place we were viewing and was told “Italia!” There I was, a U.S. government official without an Italian visa, in Italian waters with Croatian fishermen. I sobered up almost immediately. Only when I returned to Croatian territory did I consider this to be “fun.”

At a 1978 meeting of virologists on the Island of Brač, in Croatia, the requisite evening wine-drinking session became a good-natured contest. A Russian virologist friend would stand and sing Red Army Chorus songs; I would follow with anti-Soviet jokes (fed to me by Croatian troublemakers). After I told one particularly cutting joke, the Russian said that if I would not tell any more jokes he would not sing any more songs, and then he challenged me to swim in the very cold Adriatic Sea. The very idea chilled me, but I was not about to appear weak — I intended to uphold my country’s honor. We stripped, swam around for a bit, determined that we had not had heart attacks, and emerged from the water, only to find that someone had playfully taken our clothes. We had to walk into our hotel stark naked and ask for our room keys. This was international cooperation at its most productive.

Misunderstanding my departure date from Lyon, France, on one trip, my host had to hurriedly stuff me on a train to Geneva, from where my plane was to take me to Brussels, Belgium, then home early the next morning. When I arrived in Geneva about midnight, the last plane had departed. I was not about to pay an inordinate sum to sleep in a hotel for two hours, so I decided to sleep in the airport. Swiss police, with machine guns, told me the airport was closing. I told them that was fine, so long as I could sleep there. They wished me well, turned off the lights and locked the doors. I read, took food from unlocked kiosks, left some money to pay for my thefts and slept until the lights came on. I caught my flight to Brussels. When I arrived there I was met by two Belgian soldiers with machine guns who told me they had been ordered by an anonymous virologist to escort me to my connecting flight to be sure I did not become lost. I transferred planes at New York City and arrived in Denver just in time to greet a newly born granddaughter at the hospital. Not all trips go smoothly, but all trips go well if one returns home safely.

Invited by the Cuban government in 1975 to teach virus diagnosis at their virology institute, I was living in a hotel in Havana. One evening I took a bus to a baseball field and enjoyed a game between teams of excellent Cuban players. The next day I was invited to attend a baseball game at the same park. When I told the inviter I had already done that, I was told I should not have. I ignored that: What could they do except throw me out of the country? No one had advised me to take my meals in the hotel dining room either, but I suppose I was expected to. I had preferred to find a nice little restaurant elsewhere and soon found one, but when I tried to pay the bill I was told there was no bill and that this was a restaurant for people with identifications I did not have. Thanking the staff for dinner and nice service, I left to walk back to my hotel.

On the way back I saw a woman leaning out the window of a room in an apartment from which smoke was escaping. Fire trucks lined the street, but no one was paying the least bit of attention to the poor woman, so I entered the building, ran up the stairs, found and entered the apartment, and tried to get her to leave with me. She refused, vehemently, so I went to the window and, given that I was not in a crowded theater, shouted “Fuego!” The firemen soon arrived and one of them informed me that this was an exercise only, but the woman thanked me politely and led me back to the street. I learned a valuable lesson from that experience but cannot recall what that was. Worse, after I returned from Cuba their government accused me of somehow starting an epidemic there. I wrote to Fidel, but he never replied.

I umpired baseball games for 20 years and that was great fun, but my work, my discoveries and my being able to put 2 + 2 together and get 4 (most of the time) also were great fun. The bottom line for me is that work always has been and will continue to be enjoyable, otherwise, why would I care? Why would I do it?

Charlie Calisher lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has had a distinguished career as a virologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at Colorado State University. His latest book is Lifting the Impenetrable Veil: From Yellow Fever to Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever & SARS.