The Curious Case of Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carell / by Matthew Sims

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Charles Lindbergh looms large in the dual histories of Aviation and St. Louis. His solo trans-Atlantic flight is the literally the first of its kind, and is etched into the stone of American history. This flight is one of the few things ever discussed about him, outside of the tragic kidnapping of his son. In our previous episode, Pigs on the Wing, we briefly touched on the story of “Lucky Lindy’s” flight and the Spirit of St. Louis airplane. But there is another entirely different side to the story of Charles Lindbergh, one seldom touched upon until recently.

Charles Lindbergh’s interest in aviation lived in lockstep with an interest in mechanical design. Lindbergh is famous for a design of watch that is still in production to this day. Less known than that, however, is a device and a research partner forever associated with the darkest parts of his career. As is so often the case in stories we cover, like the story of Dr. Joseph McDowell, much more can be said, and requires a bit of context.

The 20th century could be described as a period of time where massive progress was made, especially with regards to medicine and science. One of Europe’s contributors in these fields during the earliest part of the century is Alexis Carrel. Carrel was trained in medicine at the University of Lyons. A daring and inventive surgeon (a phrase that in hindsight sounds ghoulish) he became known as a leader in surgical techniques. One of his biggest contributions to the field involved a method of suturing blood vessels. This technique not only allowed for future work on organ transplantation (more on that later,) but also saved countless lives from bleeding out on an operating table. For his work, Dr. Carrel would be a Nobel Laureate.

Dr. Alexis Carrel

Dr. Alexis Carrel

While working at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York, Dr. Carrel met Charles Lindbergh. The approach appears to have been professional at first; Lindbergh’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Morrow had a known heart condition that was considered inevitably fatal at the time. Dr. Carrel and Lindbergh began a discussion on why the human heart could not, at the time, be operated on. Issues with the flow of blood were the cause, as blood would coagulate and not flow if not kept warm and moving. Being an innovator in surgery, Carrel showed Lindbergh a design that would begin their long association.

Imagine a tall Pyrex glass tube with a flared base, so that it can stand vertically without any external support. From the top of the tube, picture several smaller tubes projecting from the sides and top, curved vaguely like a goose’s neck. This design, called a Perfusion Pump, was intended to allow for organs to be supplied with blood and oxygen. The organ would be placed into the main chamber of the device, with the necessary arteries and veins slid through the various side-tubes. Nutrient rich floods and heat could be used on the organ inside the Pump, theoretically allowing for an organ to kept alive during any sort of dangerous repair. Lindbergh’s knowledge of mechanics allowed him to begin developing the necessary mechanical components to allow for the pump to have a steady flow of the previously mentioned nutrients and oxygen. Their work together landed them on the cover of Time Magazine in June 1938.

If we were to stop here, this would be little more than a curious aside in the history of medicine involving two giants of their fields. But Lindbergh and Carrel would be less known for this than their disturbing viewpoints regarding race. And this viewpoint went well beyond the “acceptable” racism of their time, falling squarely into a category that is much harder to discuss in our modern era.

In the early years of the 20th century, Eugenics had been considered a somewhat acceptable view of genetics. For the uninitiated (and I apologize in advance for having to end your ignorance on this subject,) Eugenics is a pseudoscience that claims that “undesirable” human traits could be eradicated through controlling human breeding. If that sounds like something you’d read in a Nazi-era German biology text, you are correct. Eugenics has been a discredited in the modern era. It is associated with ideas about forced sterilization and humans rights abuses so heinous that it goes well outside the scope of our short discussion here. (And I regret to say that eugenics were not only practiced by one of the worst totalitarian states in our modern era, but also at one point by the United States government. This article by Lisa Ko at PBS offers an excellent overview if you are curious.)

Dr. Alexis Carrel died in November of 1944.  At the time he was involved in further Eugenics research for the Vichy government of Nazi-occupied France.  While he and Lindbergh's work would help lead the way for ideas about organ replacement and artificial organ technology, his legacy will always carry a particular onus of  bigotry.

So in the end, what do we make of a character such as Lindbergh? He certainly isn’t the first figure in American history to break new ground but also be have reprehensible views.  There are some arguments about Lindbergh's perspectives regarding The Holocaust. His wife Anne, for instance, claims she never heard him make anti-Semitic comments in their many decades together.  However, in an article by John Callan it's reported that Lindbergh had given a speech in 1940, saying "Their [the Jews’] greatest danger in this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”  If that sounds familiar, don't be surprised. It's the same claim of a "Zionist Occupied Government" that has existed for entirely too long.

We're left with a question: should we be so proud of Charles Lindbergh?  His legacy of racism and eugenics should be completely disavowed and treated with scorn.  However, his assistance with the invention of the Perfusion Pump paved the way for countless innovations, and his solo flight still stands as a remarkable achievement for it's time period.  This, of course, casts no shade over the work of his aeronautical benefactor, Albert Lambert, or over the City of St. Louis. Perhaps the best approach is to leave a caveat to Lindbergh's reputation, a perpetual asterisk in any discussion of the man, and not of the pilot.