Denizens of Baghdad’s Green Zone, take note
- Leonard Wood: Rough Rider, Surgeon, Architect of American Imperialism by Jack McCallum
New York, 368 pp, $34.95, December 2005, ISBN 0 8147 5699 9
With the arguable exception of John J. Pershing, whose over-inflated reputation derives entirely from his brief tenure commanding US forces on the Western Front, General Leonard Wood was America’s most prominent military officer during the first quarter of the 20th century. More than any of his contemporaries, military or civilian, Wood embodied the first American empire, inaugurated by the outward thrust of 1898, reaching its zenith in 1917 with US intervention in the Great War, and then petering out in the disappointing aftermath of that struggle.
Vol. 28 No. 9 · 11 May 2006
Andrew Bacevich portrays Leonard Wood almost exclusively as a forerunner of the present-day American imperialists in Iraq (LRB, 20 April). But there was more to him than that, and I was surprised to find no reference to his involvement in medicine other than a passing remark to the effect that he saw war as ‘an opportunity to escape from a medical profession that he found dull and clausrophobic’. Yet it is mainly in relation to medicine that this largely ‘forgotten figure’ still has a claim on our attention.
First as military governor of Cuba following the 1898 war with Spain, he facilitated Walter Reed’s path-breaking discovery that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. Two decades later, having in 1921 been appointed governor-general of the Philippines, he backed the pathologist H.W. Wade as he achieved a similar breakthrough in the fight against leprosy, which was rife in the islands. In six years he visited Culion island leprosarium no fewer than 17 times.
The Filipino politicians who opposed him for riding roughshod over them and ruling autocratically accused him of being moved less by humanitarian concern than by vanity and personal ambition. Their view was reflected in a Philippines Herald headline: ‘Culion Is Colossal Failure. Millions Are Spent Uselessly. Human Beings Used for Experiments to Acquire World Renown.’ Rather than launching ad hominem attacks on the governor-general, the politicians would have done well to point out the disproportion between the money he lavished on leprosy and the lack of funds available for tuberculosis, a far more widespread disease.
As Bacevich suggests, the ‘ageing proconsul’ was an anachronism in the Manila of the interwar era, and he may well have felt more comfortable in Culion, which was, after all, a colony within a colony and therefore that much more susceptible to a ‘benign despot’. Certainly Culion flourished during the half-dozen years of his governor-generalship as never before or since, despite the fact that the latest treatment tried out on over four thousand patients there – injections of chaulmoogra ethyl ester – proved not to be the long-awaited breakthrough. That would have to wait until 1941 and the sulphone revolution at Carville, the only leprosarium on the mainland of the United States.
Culion was itself becoming an anachronism. Leprosy patients were badly treated almost everywhere but, in the modern world at least, it was European colonisers who first set out to segregate them systematically; and in the Philippines, where segregation was most rigorously enforced, it was by no means universally welcomed. ‘As to leprosy,’ a Filipino professional told a visiting American writer in the 1920s, ‘you know we are not as afraid of that as you are. We are always, at bottom, opposed to segregation. Family ties with us are strong. We do not consider the disease very horrible.’
Wood’s contribution to the struggle against one of the world’s most fearsome diseases continued after his death. The American Leprosy Foundation, which he had been instrumental in creating, was renamed in his honour the Leonard Wood Memorial Fund for the Eradication of Leprosy.