Manning is on the phone," my assistant announced one day
in 1962. Alice, who later became a much beloved Gazette writer,
was secretary to the area’s two orthopedic surgeons, Don Chrisman
and George Snook. "She wants to know if you can make some
lecture slides for Dr. Chrisman," which was not an unreasonable
request of commercial photographers. And so began nearly four
decades of collaboration, discovery and learning.
Don Chrisman arrived without the usual illustrations from books
and journals to be made into slides, but rather came with a pile
of huge x-ray films to be photographed. And the slides required
weren’t the normal 35mm variety. No, he needed large, glass-plate
Lantern slides. So already there were things I needed to learn.
How to photograph x-rays, and ‘just what is a Lantern slide’ became
immediate, time-sensitive challenges, since Don’s students at
Yale Medical School were waiting. Our local orthopod was so esteemed
at Yale that unlike other part-time instructors who are clinical
or adjunct faculty, the medical school awarded Don a full professorship.
He was a natural teacher, as I would soon discover.
expected that, as time went on and we gained some experience doing
Don’s lecture photography, this very busy surgeon – and there
were only these two orthopedists in the county four decades ago
– might drop off the x-ray films for photography, and fly out
the door on his way to his next ‘case’, as surgeons usually refer
to their patients. I was very wrong. Don didn’t have ‘cases’,
at least not in my office. He had patients – real people - with
presenting problems, and histories, and stories. Don was fully
invested in his relationships with people that he could help,
so every film came to me with a mini-lecture, an explanation of
what had needed fixing and how it was accomplished, right here,
in the surgery at Cooley Dickinson. He was very proud of the sophisticated
procedures successfully performed in our small town hospital.
And it was with obvious enthusiasm, that he went on at length
to me about the outcomes of surgeries as we compared before and
after x-rays on the enormous viewer that soon graced my office.
And so it
went for a lot of years, until Don retired from practice. But
wait, my ‘classroom’ was not to be vacant for long. A compelling
new interest, a new degree from Umass, a new field of research,
brought Don back to our photographic collaborations, with a whole
new series of mini-lectures for me to hear. From the living to
the dead - the long dead - as paleontology and archeology, the
searching, discovering and identifying of old bones and artifacts
from the Southwest, consumed Don’s ‘second career’. He brought
his considerable medical expertise to his new profession, with
the help of CAT scans and spectrographic analysis to try and unveil
the past. Our photography now evolved into macro and micro work,
and soon to electron microscopy. And with every project, he taught
me more, perhaps more than I wanted or needed to know, but certainly
more than I could absorb.
Don has gone
now. First from Northampton to a retirement community in Bedford,
and now, at 83, gone for a final time to whatever lecture hall
the hereafter may afford him.
For my part,
I miss those long talks about surgery, and bones both old and
new. There probably isn’t much that I’ve retained in concrete
knowledge, but I know that in my travels with Dr. O. Donald Chrisman
I learned about patience, compassion, and dedication and yes,
focus. It was an unexpected education.
(Dick Fish is a photographer at Smith College)