I first met him at a seminar on latent tuberculosis– I was there as a tagalong. He had arrived late, hobbling in with a briefcase twice his width and a stack of papers half his height. He sat down beside me.
He began his academic career to study the pathogenesis of tuberculosis circa 1940, an era when supervisors were called mentors, and scientists walked around hallways in white lab coats, carrying sandwiches in their briefcase– to be eaten in the lab while they stained slides for viewing under the microscope.
In fact, Professor Arthur M Dannerberg Jr., at 86 years old, still wore his lab coat outside of the lab, now more yellow than white, and continued to use a slide projector for his Principles of Bacterial Infection course, conducted once every two years. He had been formally retired for over a decade, but came five days a week to the institute– more often than I did as a full-time student.
Part laboratory, part museum, his office was the only room on the wing to resist renovations for sleeker structure. The sole modern contraption to be seen was the large PC monitor at his work desk. He tried to avoid using the computer as much as possible, but always responded to my emails within a few days– typed in size 18 font.
The Professor did not commonly examine his students on paper. He preferred instead to orally interrogate them in his office to obtain evidence of their understanding. I took his course as a pass fail, more interested in him as a subject than the science itself. The course was fascinating, but my interest did not match my commitment to excel. During the oral exam, he was clearly troubled by how little I knew at the end of the course.
I tried to hide my inadequacies by asking questions. It turned out my questions were the same questions that the entire field was still unable to answer, which seemed to improve his view of me. He hesitated before committing his pen on my evaluation sheet. “You know I can’t give you anymore than a B,” he said, clearly feeling bad about it.
I quickly reassured him I was taking the course for pass fail, and he quickly brightened up. “You don’t know very much. But you ask very good questions,” he concluded kindly, before scribbling on what I assumed then to be a B. I once found myself walking behind him. There were others in the hallway, and they quickly overtook and left him in their dust. I was not in a hurry, so I took the pleasure of trailing behind him, until I could not walk any slower without stopping completely. So I fell into step beside him.
He never failed to heartily greet me, and in our conversation he would work a way to tell me that I reminded him of a dear former student who came over for dinner and met his wife. His wife was also over eighty years old. “She’s a bit slow, but she’s a great companion. I think I married right!” he would say of her, laughing happily.
I sent him pictures of my wedding, to which he responded immediately, asking questions about the groom. He ended his email by writing, “I hope you have as many happy years together as my wife and I have. We are now married 62 years.” My friend Sarah told me that his wife fell ill last spring, and the Professor stopped coming to work to be a stay at home husband. But he still came once a week to teach his course.
Two years passed since our first meeting, and I have begun an academic career in tuberculosis. I stopped emailing him since graduating, but was moved to write an email when I saw his name in my tuberculosis textbook. I wrote to him to ask specific questions, but was also moved to include statements about how much my chance encounter with him had influenced my decision to embark in this field.
I sent the email a month ago. I have not received a reply.