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How many scruples in a drachm?

They’re with us all the time, but during election years we’re more likely to notice lobbyists, scurying between power lunches on K Street and the halls of Congress. Few have been more effective than those representing the pharmaceutical industry.

Somewhere much earlier in this blog, either Howard or I mentioned the evolution of the American drug store, especially during the 19th century, but I can’t recall now which of us it might have been. No matter.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor


One winter when he was fourteen or fifteen, my dad had a very bad cold. Not pneumonia, mind you; just one of those sadistic, pertussive viruses that take more than a little satisfaction, even delight, in lingering well beyond their expiration date. So Dad’s grandmother Rachel (his mom’s mom), an “Old School” Presbyterian by upbringing and a seer by natural ability, took matters in hand.



Theo Van Kannel the pharmacist was still holding forth at the Agincourt Sanitary Drug Co. he’d founded in the 1890s, a family operation that faultered when his only son and heir Dirk was killed at the Battle of Cantigny in World War I. Women found it difficult to enter the profession, which is odd, considering the lineage of female healers from the Greek goddess Circe to Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, so Dirk’s sisters pursued other careers. Our own Sissy Beddowes was still active, though, a Sac & Fox medicine woman whose knowledge of herbal remedies had warranted adjunct faculty status at the Chicago College of Homeopathy; Van Kannel is rumored to have consulted Mrs Beddowes as his equal in the medicinal arts. And such it was with Dad.

Mrs Beddowes was a regular guest at my great-grandmother Martha Tennant’s house, which must be where Sissy learned of father’s persistent cold and its full complement of symptoms. At Rachel Parks’ request, Sissy visited Theo Van Kannel for items not already in her personal arsenal of roots, leaves, flowers and seeds and together she and Van Kannel concocted a pill not known to modern science—a gobstopper worthy of Willy Wonka.

A pellet the size of a robin’s egg, color of arsenic and odor of linseed and wet dog, hand-rolled between two human palms—it was dutifully delivered, unsolicited, by great-grandmother Rachel, on all accounts a woman not to be denied. With luck, Dad’s taste buds had been dulled from days of sickness and milk toast, so there was no reliable report of the pellet’s taste. But within twenty minutes Dad was snoring between clean sheets and several feather comforters.

Twenty-four hours later—almost to the minute—he woke from the soundest and most refreshing sleep of his young life, the bed soggy with miasma of his sweat and him craving solid food for the first time in a week. Pounds lighter, he also confessed craving another of those pills. No one asked for a list of ingredients, though, speculation running to the fruit of the poppy long before Dorothy enjoyed its effects. Who knows what a repeat performance might have wrought. My Dad the junkie.

Knowledge isn’t wisdom and higher ground may be more valuable than higher education. Frankly, I’ve got sound advice from the Yellow Book, as well as the Good one.

Rachel Parks, Sissy Beddowes and Theo Van Kannel are gone now and, sadly, they took much of their wisdom with them. But, just as happily, modern medicine is awakening to the point of view they represented.

I’m glad to have heard this tale from Dad himself and to have passed it on to you.

Death and the Scholar—a fable


She was ill, very ill.

Doctors had come and gone, diagnosed and disagreed, but each application of poultice, pill or purgative brought only slight, short-lived relief. The night nurse, instructed simply to ease the process, sat by her side, wiped away bloody phlegm, cooled the forehead with a cold compress. At least she would die in her own room, only steps from another where she’d been born sixteen years before.

“It will be just an hour or two. No more than that,” the night nurse tried to comfort. “She may know you’re here. It means so much to her now and will to you tomorrow.” How many others has Nurse seen through to this end, he wondered. “We should call the priest.”

Standing at the foot of the bed, the father held on to hope. “Not yet.” Somehow he’d stepped beyond his sphere of grief and conceived a plan. “Should you feel a chilly draft—and I believe you will—come to the library and get me,” and then he pinned a note to his daughter’s pillow which the nurse might have found odd, redundant and perhaps insulting: “I am in the Library. We must talk,” he had written in elegant scarlet script.

The library was his haven, a womb of the mind where he’d birthed his finest thoughts (infrequent as they might be). And it was there that he’d conceived the very best of them—on this, of all evenings—for there, amid the oiled leather bindings of old friends, in the dim-lit fragrance of darjeeling and tobacco, the Professor would wait for Death and bargain for the child’s life.


A knock so slight, as a servant might knock, like the clearing of a throat. The dog’s ears perked. “Come, Nurse,” he said, not bothering to look up from his writing.

Hearing the latch and a low groan from the dog, he expected to address a pearl-grey nurse. But standing two respectful steps inside the room was a lean black-robed figure holding a staff, the caricature of Death. The odor of melancholy filled the room; drove out the more familiar scents. “Thank you for accepting my invitation. Would you care to sit?”

“Mine is solitary work and grateful for conversation.” Death’s voice was oddly soothing, mellifluous; of greater comfort than any clergy in recent memory. “Don’t take my standing as discourtesy. I am an uninvited guest in yours and every other house, and seldom welcome.” After a long pause he added, “You wish to negotiate your daughter’s death. This is more common than you might suppose.”

“Yes, but my arguments are thin and self-serving.”

“You seem surprised by my appearance. We show ourselves as culture expects—without necessarily behaving in such a way,” Death explained. “I could go out and return in another form—the night nurse, perhaps.”

“No, we are each creatures of habit, I suspect, so please stay—as you are.” By this time the Professor had stood, to make his guest more comfortable.


“Then press your case. Please.”

The Professor offered facts he thought Death would already know: that his wife had died at childbirth; that the daughter became the central figure of his life; that he had few resources, not even the house where they stood, which was owned by his academic employers. The girl was so tender and might be married within two or three years. “But I am old,” he added, “and have little time to offer for an extension of her young life. She was the product of my middle age; so many years focused on my work, though that poor investment should be no concern of yours. I suspect there are not all that many years left to me but you may have them gladly.”

“Yes, the Ledger of life and death appoints a time for each of us but it gives me little insight.” So Death inquired: “I know only that you are a professor. Are you a man of medicine, whose work will lessen suffering? Or a man of science and invention, who can improve the quality of life for those not yet born? A philosopher, perhaps, who might discern the meaning of life—and the purpose of its end and in doing so to justify my work?”

“No, I am none of those,” he admitted without apology. “Simply a man of words, concerned with clarity of thought and the expressive beauty of language—a mark I often miss.” He leaned intently forward across the desk, hoping to glimpse Death’s face and gauge the situation. Then a question occurred to him: “Earlier, you said ‘We show ourselves….’ Are there more of you?”

Braced on his staff, Death seemed slightly less formal, less remote, practically at ease; vulnerable. “Thank you for asking. Yes, there are several of us, though the number is unknown to me. We are what you would call independent contractors, working for neither side, impartial, unbiased. If you have complaint that today’s date was incorrectly set, your argument is with an authority higher than mine.” He explained his recruitment into the Brotherhood; that his name is also in the Ledger; and that he, too, will die—though after many more years than humans might expect.


Their conversation continued through the night, a stimulating exchange the Professor could never have imagined; neither would others believe. And it was also a conversation Death had relished as well. Before dawn, their bargain was struck: The child would live.

The Scholar had agreed to tell Death’s tale—whose preface you’ve just read. He had also enabled Death himself to pass his scythe to another, the Scholar taking his own place among the Ledger’s keepers. Balance had been achieved, equity maintained. And favors exchanged.

Five days after her fever broke, she entered her father’s library and found his final manuscript wrapped in purest white, tied with scarlet twine.

Do they caucus in the Caucasus?

It’s New Year’s Day!

The Year of Our Lord 2011 was a mixed bag—several personal setbacks, a few accomplishments, nothing to write home about. My friend Howard is probably tweeking the final draft of Monday’s column—not his usual “figs from thistles” piece but something about the Iowa caucuses. Is it just my imagination, or has all this political foreplay left us too exhausted for an orgasm?


Howard is more of a centrist than I am, which is to say he’s only a little left of center. But I surely don’t envy the past several weeks in Agincourt: every Republican candidate is likely to have made a pass through town, some more than once, stopping at many of Howard’s favorite haunts—the Koffee Kup, Bon-Ton and Adams Restaurant. But the thought of being in the same hemisphere with Bachman, Perry or Cain turns my stomach, so the onslaught of personal politicking, PAC-mail, and phone canvassing must have been grueling. The only good thing about an early-evening cold call would have been its diversion from the TV hate-spots. What’s a body to do?

Short stops by the candidates are tolerable. It’s the local politicos you see 24/7 that are really unnerving. Howard told me about the head of Fennimore county’s Libertarians, for example, who parrots Ron Paul’s talking points that government’s value is the inverse of its size. Strange talk for someone who’s got a software company developing at the “Home Grown” business incubator. Apparently the contradiction is lost on him.

The next twenty-four hours can’t pass too swiftly for me. Then we can look forward to endless parsing of the caucus results by talking heads at both extremes of the political spectrum. Then it’s on to New Hampshire and round two—speaks well for the parliamentary system, doesn’t it?

Jeez, I want this election to be toast.