Minnesotans of the Year
One is a surgeon, the other a publisher. For ﬁve decades, Henry and Emilie Buchwald have transformed lives—one patient, one book, at a time.
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Eventually the couple moved to Edina, where they raised a family and still live today. So the story has a happy ending. But the Buchwalds have never forgotten how it started, in flight from evil.
Emilie channels her outrage at injustice into the issue of animal abuse, which she sees as indicative of larger societal values. She is fond of Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” “Do you treat other creatures as your equal or are you their conqueror?” she asks. An American Eskimo dog named Sam has the run of the Buchwalds’ lakeside home. But across America, the picture is more grim; the recent explosion in pet ownership has resulted in millions of dogs being bred in oppressively crowded conditions and millions more being given up, abandoned, or worse. Emilie acknowledges that some form of the strong taking advantage of the weak—the survival of the fittest—is endemic to all animals, including humans. She just doesn’t accept the instinct as unmalleable.
At a reading celebrating the release of Gryphon’s first two books (which she wrote under the name Daisy Bix), Emilie is surrounded by giant balloons shaped like dogs. She sits in the education room of the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, down the hall from a room full of cats, a wall of birds, and, on this day, a phalanx of rabbits hopping about. “Animals have a point of view, with a life that’s significant to them and to us,” she declares to the audience, who, like her, likely believe animals deserve better than they generally get. “Though sometimes,” Emilie continues, “I feel the whole weight of the culture is against us.” Children as young as 2 or 3, she notes, form groups with the sole purpose of excluding others. Instinct is a formidable foe.
If anyone can change people through words, it may be Emilie. First of all, she knows how to use them better than most: as a child in Queens, she would sit on her porch and read the dictionary; she published her first short story in Harper’s Bazaar at 23. And her optimism has always been matched by pragmatism. It was 1979, the last gasp of ’60s-style change-the-world idealism, when she and art director R. W. Scholes launched The Milkweed Chronicle, a magazine that combined visual art and literary writing. In the late 1980s, by which time the hippies had suited up for office jobs, she and Scholes phased out the magazine and created Milkweed Editions as a nonprofit literary press. Soon, Bill Holm was sending in a 300-page manuscript on box elder bugs (it was edited and published) and a Milkweed book by Carol Bly was being reviewed in the New York Times. Today, more than 1 million Milkweed books are out in the world.
But while Emilie obviously wanted Milkweed’s books to sell well, she never sought bestsellers (the press’s most popular book, Montana 1948, by Larry Watson, has sold some 380,000 copies). Instead, Emilie reached out to authors with something meaningful to say. From the beginning, she made room for nonfiction books she called “thistles” because they addressed prickly topics: Transforming a Rape Culture, Changing the Bully Who Rules the World, Toward the Livable City. For her efforts, she’s been celebrated like few other publishers. “Her commitment to contemporary literature and her dedication to providing American readers with writing that tackles the foremost issues of our time—during a period when more and more books are published but fewer and fewer matter—can only be described as heroic,” said the late Cliff Becker, then the literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, when Emilie received the McKnight Distinguished Artist prize. Janisse Ray, whose memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood was published by Milkweed and won an American Book Award, has said, “Hers is a holy work.”
From the beginning, though, Emilie had the idea of publishing books about the relationship between animals and people—picture books that depict animals’ real lives as pets or wildlife. (“Do you want the butt-sniffing?” an illustrator asked recently, while working on At the Dog Park with Sam and Lucy. “Of course,” Emilie responded.) In the ’80s, Emilie incorporated the Gryphon Press, named for the mythological creatures known as protectors and symbols of integrity. But Emilie never had time to pursue this passion until she left Milkweed in 2003. Now she has titles slated through 2008.
Photo by Joe Treleven
“They’re both very strong believers that you can make your life what you want it to be, by and large,” says Jane Buchwald, the couple’s eldest daughter, “and if you set your mind to a mission, you will do what you need to do to transform yourself into that person who can accomplish that mission.”
HENRY’S FIRST TRANSFORMATION occurred on the streets of New York. After the move from Austria to Long Island, his family had little money and, at age 6, Henry worked on the docks unloading fish. But eventually, the family moved to Upper Manhattan, and where Henry fell in with a group of 12 boys who called themselves the Wolf Pack, a kind of club that fostered an interest not only in sports but music and books. They would play baseball together, then listen to Beethoven. The group instilled in Henry a lifelong love of learning.
Henry went on to the selective Bronx High School of Science, where he was a competitive swimmer and concertmaster of the orchestra. At Columbia College, he swam varsity and was class valedictorian. It was this mix of the physical and intellectual that would soon draw him to surgery and to the U’s research-oriented training program—a focus that has endured. “It was an opportunity to dispel ignorance and bring something about that would hopefully have some lasting benefit,” Henry says.
Soon after his arrival at the U, Henry received his own lab and began studying cholesterol. In the 1970s, he received the largest grant the National Institutes of Health had ever given for research initiated by an investigator (as opposed to a government contract), for the landmark POSCH trials that would occupy him for the better part of three decades and ultimately demonstrate that lowering cholesterol could reduce heart attacks and otherwise increase life expectancy. He also helped invent the first implantable infusion pump, a device that helps inject chemotherapy, insulin, pain killers, and other drugs into patients more efficiently.
Henry’s mentor, Dr. Richard Varco, performed the first-ever obesity operation in 1953, and it was almost inevitable that Henry would be pulled into the field. Varco, a world-renowned surgeon, had participated in the first open-heart operation and later developed the U’s transplant program. But in 1966, he was temporarily sidelined after an accident that cut a nerve. And so, when he spotted Henry in the hallway one day, he asked him to take over an upcoming obesity surgery. “His hand was in a cast,” Henry recalls. “He was waving it, saying, ‘I would do it if I could!’ And now here I am, 4,000 operations later.”
At the time, bariatric surgery had as much of a stigma as obesity itself; most surgeons wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot scalpel. “It used to be the Rodney Dangerfield of surgery,” says Dr. Walter Pories, a pioneer in the field and a professor at East Carolina University. “How could you possibly want to deal with fat people? Those people are immoral gluttons, and gluttony’s one of the venal sins!” he says of the attitude then. At the time, the surgery often induced complications, and was so new that it wasn’t always clear who should or shouldn’t have the operation. “Its bad reputation was deserved,” Pories says.
But Pories and Buchwald carried on. “I developed an empathy for these poor people,” says Henry. “They have a disease, and there is no other disease that is treated with such disrepect. No one applies derision to people who have cancer or heart disease.”
Henry is convinced that obesity will experience a medical about-face the way ulcers have. Not so long ago, doctors believed ulcers were stress-induced and primarily occurred in anxiety-ridden mid-level executives. Now it’s known that ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection and could affect anyone. Henry suspects that the true causes of obesity may be similarly impersonal—a virus, even, that infects the hypothalamus and screws up the body’s sense of feeling full. “In 10 years, we may laugh at all this ideology of obesity,” he says. In the meantime, with the obesity epidemic linked to all manner of health concerns, bariatric surgery has suddenly become a savior. “First you don’t get no respect,” marvels Pories, “and now, in the last three or four years, we’ve become Mother Teresa.” For his part, Henry will continue to push for an understanding of both obesity and obesity surgery. “If you named maybe 10 international leaders [in bariatric surgery],” Pories says, “Henry would fall on any list that people in the field would make.”
But Henry has not been content to simply focus on obesity. He has begun work on a new quest: to understand how a measure of oxygen transport, the relative efficiency with which oxygen moves through the body, might redefine what it means to be healthy. He has discovered, for instance, that if you lower cholesterol, oxygen transport increases. And while it’s still unknown what the applications of measuring oxygen transport might be, Henry believes it could be anything from testing for the presence of heart disease to assessing overall health or even athletic potential.
This research began several decades ago, when he and others at the U built a device for measuring oxygen transport. Henry believes so strongly in its implications for patient well-being that he now funds some of the work himself. The Buchwalds, even in their seventies, seem like they’re just getting started. “It’s the Faustian spirit,” Henry says. “Always wanting to do something that goes into the future.”
Of course, the Buchwalds’ place in history is already assured, and for something bigger even than their individual achievements. On the U campus, you can stand between the monuments bearing the Buchwalds’ names, and, unable to read the specifics—to know that Emilie is etched in for her 2002 honorary doctorate or Henry for helping create the drug-infusion pump—you realize the details don’t matter. It is enough to know they have done something, and continue to do something, for the greater good. Or, as Emilie puts it, “To do something because you think it’s worth doing.” And not giving up. “It’s not even a work ethic,” Emilie says of her and Henry’s tirelessness. “It’s the ethic of continuing."
Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.