George J. Willauer, MD 1923 and the White Throated Song Sparrow

Adapted from “Legend and Lore: Jefferson Medical College” Chapter 6: Unusual Jefferson Alumni by John Y. Templeton III, MD ’41 the Samuel D. Gross Professor of Surgery (1967-1968)

It is May of 1967. Joe Stayman, MD ’42, and I sit in the wooden Peterborough on Lac Pythonga near the clubhouse in western Quebec awaiting our transportation.

Joe is chief of surgery at Chestnut Hill Hospital and beloved by generations of surgical residents and medical students fortunate enough to enjoy this affiliation. They appreciate his surgical skills and particularly his endless devotion to teaching.

We are both veterans of Dr. Gibbon’s surgical residency and have spent many hours with Dr. George Willauer in and out of the operating room. He is a hard taskmaster, but we love him dearly. He possesses immense clinical knowledge and surgical skills, particularly in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis. A born teacher, he has worked long and hard to impart this knowledge to us. He is completely honest, and for him the welfare of his patients is paramount. He jealously guards the integrity of his profession and roundly condemns any real or fancied derelictions of his colleagues. He holds his friends dear and neither gives nor asks quarter of his enemies. He is not always at one with the medical establishment and can at times be something of a maverick. For these things and more, we admire and respect him, but we are also intrigued by his unique lifestyle.

Always the impeccably dressed gentleman, he sports a black opera cape. His language is often strong and laced with colorful figures of speech. He rides in a 1935 black Packard convertible with his chauffeur, Glynn. Glynn steers and manages the foot pedals. Dr. Willauer shifts gears and gives detailed instructions as to speed and course. He makes loud critical comments, easily audible from the open automobile, about the driving habits of fellow motorists. He enjoys himself immensely.

We hear Laurentian’s Beaver coming in from Rocklands, its sound rising in pitch as the pilot sets the power for landing. We go ashore and wait as Johnny Whiteduck, later chief of the Algonquins in Maniwaki, brings the floatplane up to the dock, the big R-985 turning over so slowly we can hear each cylinder individually. We bid our friends farewell, load the gear, and head for home, just ahead of the impending onslaught of black flies and mosquitoes that make June in that part of the north so unpleasant. As always, it has been a good trip, this time notably so because of the White Throated Song Sparrow.

Now you know and I know that there are White Throated Sparrows and there are Song Sparrows, but there are no White Throated Song Sparrows. Dr. George Willauer, however, believed in White Throated Song Sparrows, and that, for purpose of this story, is the important thing.

The American Association for Thoracic Surgery met in New York City in April 1967. Tom Holder was there. He too had been a resident with Dr. Gibbon and had then gone on to study pediatric surgery with Dr. Robert Gross. He became a prominent Kansas City pediatric surgeon making many contributions to the field, particularly in the management of congenital atresia of the esophagus.

Tom invited Dr. Willauer and me to lunch, and we repaired to the Americana Hotel. We were on holiday, so cocktails were in order. Dr. Willauer ordered a hot buttered rum against a rather dreary, cold, and drizzly day. Serious problems arose. Both waiter and bartender were from the Caribbean, where, probably because of the tropical climate, this drink is not very popular despite its rum content. Very precise instructions followed, sticks of cinnamon were found somewhere in the dark recesses of the pantry, and, in due course, a drink acceptable to the maestro appeared. Spirited conversation followed, spurred by the good companionship and the affection and respect that Tom and I felt for Dr. Willauer.

If there was anything that Dr. Willauer loved as much as surgery, it was the outdoors, specifically the outdoors in Maine. He had been very seriously ill in his younger days, and his classmate, W. Emory “Mose” Burnett, MD 1923, and Dean Parkinson of Temple took him to Maine to convalesce. It was his custom to return twice each year. In the spring, he fished the Allagash for speckled trout or the Narraguagas for Atlantic salmon. In the autumn, he hunted deer from Round Pond on the Allagash. An early conservationist, he took only such game as he, his family, and friends could eat. He was a superb wild game cook, and his venison dinners were greatly relished by those fortunate enough to participate. His dear friend in Maine was Willard Jalbert, the famed Old Guide of the Allagash. Not only did Dr. Willauer gain much of his wilderness knowledge from Willard, but many of the colorful, pithy expressions and figures of speech that he was wont to use, particularly in times of stress in the operating room, came from Willard and his friends.

Inevitably, therefore, conversation turned to the outdoors, and I mentioned that Joe Stayman and I planned a fishing trip to the Pythonga Club in western Quebec in a few weeks. Without urging, Dr. Willauer volunteered the following instructions on how to fish northern waters correctly. As in all matters, they were well thought out, specific, detailed, and to be followed to the letter. First, he said, the fisherman should go through the snow to the cabin at water’s edge while the lake is still completely frozen. The lake is watched closely, and, one day, a pair of loons is seen. This is the signal to put all the equipment in readiness, because the next day, the ice will go out. Spring has not yet come to the north, but the fish, voracious after the long winter under the ice, will come near the surface. Vigorous fishing is begun immediately using streamer flies, Mickey Finns, Grey Ghosts, and such like.

After a few days, as the water warms and the fish go deeper, lures are changed and fished at moderate depth. Then flocks of swallows appear, gorging themselves on the first insects of the season. The fisherman may now use wet and dry flies, carefully matching the hatch. Eventually, the day comes when the voice of the first White Throated Song Sparrow is heard. In Maine, he says “Mr. Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”—in Canada, “O Canada, Canada, Canada”—in descending cadence. At this sound, the alert, experienced fisherman moves to the inlets where streams run into the lake and the temperature of the water and the supply of food are better. From the canoe, casts are made into the stream and the lures slowly retrieved. Finally, fishing is abandoned, and the expedition terminated when the black flies arise from the water and the female simulium make their bloodthirsty attack.

Well, this was excellent lunchtime conversation, and I salted the information away. The following month, Joe Stayman and I found ourselves on Lunch Lake, a small speckled trout lake, with our French guide, Michell. The morning fishing was disappointing, yielding only one small fish for a rather poor lunch at the old lean-to. The afternoon was no better, and we paddled aimlessly around.

Discouraged, we were about to give it up when to my great pleasure the unmistakable song of the White Throated Song Sparrow came to ear.

There he was, singing happily away in an alder at water’s edge. I announced to my skeptical companions that I knew exactly how we could catch fish and asked Michell to take us to the stream inlet.

Michell’s response was, “She no good there.”

My response was, “She no good here.”

So, over we went and followed Dr. Willauer’s instructions. In short order a number of very nice speckled trout were taken. This pleased and surprised us. It would not have surprised Dr. Willauer.

So, when you hear the White Throated Song Sparrow, remember Dr. George Willauer and fish the inlets of streams.