Heart Surgeon Collects Literary Treasures
DE MOTU CORDIS—O.H. “Bud” Frazier, M.D., chief of the Center for Cardiac Support and director of cardiovascular surgery research at Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, examines a 1653 copy of “De Motu Cordis,” the first book to accurately describe the human circulatory system. (Photo by Steve Ueckert)
By Ronda Wendler | Texas Medical Center News
From C.S. Lewis to Sartre, Plato to Faust, and Huxley to Hardy, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s Texas Heart Institute office overflow with many of the greatest literary classics of all time.
Medical books predictably populate the shelves as well, but it’s Frazier’s appreciation for the works of Tolstoy, Tom Wolfe, Shakespeare and other works of literature, from contemporary to antiquity, that put a sparkle in the noted heart surgeon’s eye.
As a student, Frazier favored literature and history over science and math. Some of his favorite writers, Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, were physicians, which influenced Frazier during college to consider medicine as a profession.
Today, his love of literature is evident in his ever-growing collection of books, some modern, some antiquarian and rare.
“Don’t open this too widely or you’ll break the binding,” he cautions, sliding a 1653 copy of “De Motu Cordis” across his desk.
Authored by English physician William Harvey almost 400 years ago, the medical masterwork is the first to describe in complete detail how blood circulates through the body. Handwritten notes jotted in Latin by an owner long ago are clearly visible inside the cover. The ink is brown, which Frazier says is a telltale sign of a very old book.
“After 250 years or so, ink begins to degrade,” he explains. “It turns brown because the iron is all that’s left of it.”
How many books Frazier owns altogether remains a mystery, even to him.
“I guess I’ve got about 2,000 here in my office,” he says, motioning haphazardly to the dark wooden shelves which line the walls, “and I’ve got more elsewhere.”
Acquiring ancient books is not so much an investment for Frazier as it is a desire to preserve and share literature.
Recently, he donated one of his most cherished texts to Baylor College of Medicine’s DeBakey Library so physicians, researchers and students alike could delight in its contents. The historical volume, “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” (On the Fabric of the Human Body) was written in 1553 by Andreas Vesalius, the Flemish physician who dissected prisoners hanged at the gallows in an effort to better understand the anatomy of the human body. Today, Vesalius is often called “the founder of modern human anatomy.”
Another prized collectible inscribed by Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus was given to Frazier during the Italian Transplant Society’s 1985 meeting in Palermo.
“I got it in a curious way,” Frazier recalls. “I was giving a talk about transplants, filling in for Christiaan Barnard from South Africa who had to cancel. The talk was followed by a dinner and a reception, and for some reason we all started discussing Roman history.”
A participant in the group challenged members to name the first 12 Roman emperors, and no one could – except Frazier. He named the first 12 emperors, plus the five who came afterward.
“Not even the Italians could do that,” Frazier said. “I guess the guy was so impressed that he gave me his copy of this very historically significant document.”
Though Frazier politely declined the gift, the giver persisted and the volume now resides in Frazier’s collection.
WALL-TO-WALL BOOKS—More than 2,000 books line the
Adhesive labels on bookshelves divide the books in Frazier’s office into categories: Lit/Fict/Bio/Art; American History; Travel Books; Civil War, WWI, WWII; German History; Russian History; and Medical Books. However, Frazier, who served as a flight surgeon in Vietnam and was shot down once, avoids books about the war in which he served.
His treasured texts share the shelves with knickknacks and memorabilia. A mechanical heart model shares a shelf with an oversized book on “Mexican Mural Paintings.”
Faulkner, Plutarch and a first edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” are propped alongside awards, mementos and a “Bud”weiser beer can onto which someone has artfully glued a cut-out of “Bud” Frazier’s face.
During medical rounds, Frazier often carries a book in his pocket and memorizes passages he likes. Once, he memorized “Hamlet” in its entirety, just to see if he could.
To avoid damaging his oldest books, he purchases modern copies to read while leaving the originals on shelves.
“Even the slightest page tear will kill a historic book’s value,” he explains.
And while many of Frazier’s books have lasted centuries, today’s books won’t, he says.
“In the past, paper was made using rags and discarded clothing as a source of fiber,” he explains. “Rag paper was strong and sturdy. But since the 19th century, most paper has been made from wood pulp because of cost. It just disintegrates, it doesn’t last long.”
One common measure of a paper’s quality today is its non-wood pulp content, he says.
To commemorate Frazier’s appreciation of the printed word, Houston’s Museum of Printing History recently honored him with the 2012 Gutenberg Award at its annual “For the Love of Print” gala.
Back in Frazier’s office, the movie that’s been playing on his small television gives way to an advertisement urging viewers to buy an e-book reader.
“Those things are a real tragedy,” he says, “along with all this other electronic stuff. It isolates people.”
Reading a book on a screen “isn’t real,” he contends, because an entire book can disappear in one keystroke.
“The beauty of a book is its tactile nature,” he explains. “You can see it, you can hold it, you can pass it down to your children and grandchildren. And it doesn’t disappear.”