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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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By Charles Wolf

The Magpie, Spring 1940, v. 24, n. 2, p. 38.

Dr. Martin Cartwright was a simple man, and his had been a simple life devoid of noteworthy achievement. True, he had served the community well these twenty years, had brought many young into the world and had witnessed helplessly the departure of many old, but still this was not outstanding nor even adequate for a man who had been voted "the most likely to succeed" at college. While he had performed his daily chores, and done them well, he had done only that as far as the world was concerned, and when he passed away—in the not too distant future—there would be mourners and tears shed, and an announcement in the paper, but his dreams of taking his place with Pasteur, Ehrlich, Lister and the rest would die with him, the predictions they had made for him in medical school of fame and a history-making career—these would be buried with him, and his life as far as having made a lasting contribution would have been a failure.

* * * *

Dr. Cartwright realized these things as he sat in his little laboratory holding in his hand a vial of light green fluid, quite innocuous looking. He looked at this vial and its contents, and his brow furrowed slightly. He had been experimenting for many years and this was what he had produced. Hoping to discover some substance capable of killing the bacillus that causes tuberculosis, he had instead stumbled upon this compound, the most potent thing he had ever encountered in medicine. But, and he smiled ruefully, it was potent in a most unfortunate way. Rather than killing the germs, it penetrated the whole organ and brought about speedy death. He had experimented with rabbits and had seen death instantly caused by this noxious substance.

And this had been Dr. Martin Cartwright's bid for fame! A thought occurred to Cartwright as he sat there disappointed, chagrined, and weary. If this could kill rabbits, it could also kill HUMAN BEINGS! In view of current events, he knew that numerous belligerent powers would give millions or such a destructive and decisive weapon. And after all, what were these human beings but a mass of indiscriminate, incapable beings who led their lives in their own pathetically small way; people who were content to follow cunning demagogues into war and slaughter for the aggrandizement of these same politicians. HE WOULD HAVE FAME! HE WOULD GO DOWN IN HISTORY! And the price of this glory—merely the destruction of a few of these creatures whose lives made little difference one way or the other.

He thought of these things. Yes, he could have fame and fortune; he could make his a name known the world over and uttered with terror by fear-stricken people in every corner of the world. But he thought, too, of other things. His mind wandered back to that day—Oh how many years ago?—when he—a young man then with high ideals—had taken the Hippocratic oath, "to help the sick with all his knowledge and power, and to never supply a deleterious substance to anyone." He reflected that these ideals had really meant something to him then, and now...

He thought ahead and of the future. He envisioned dead and dying and suffering individuals—men like himself. He saw the triumph of might over right and the extinguishing of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He felt a deep pang of self-reproach as he realized the full magnitude of his previous thoughts. Who was he to be even thinking such things as killing human beings? What right had he to place himself on a pedestal and look with cynicism and contumely upon the mass of humanity below? True, they might be insignificant and small, but so was he insignificant and small for harboring such diabolical ideas as these. They might be frail and common, but they had been placed on the earth for a purpose by someone or something far greater and wiser than he.

He shook his head sadly, but with resolution. Yes, he certainly could have fame, but this was not the kind of fame he wanted, nor the kind of glory any man worthy of the name could accept.

He carefully set a match to his neatly arranged formula on the table, and watched the fames eat hungrily into the paper as if they grasped the full significance of their mission. He decomposed the liquid in the vial and philosophically wondered at the fact that these elements, so potent together, were just as harmless when separated.

Dr. Martin Cartwright felt better. He was destined to remain a common, ordinary doctor, but somehow he derived great internal satisfaction from what he had done. He had not discovered a new cure to save life, but he felt that he had nevertheless saved lives by granting life where he could have taken it away.

"No, not a Pasteur or a Lister," he thought, "but still a man with self-respect and a clear conscience," for he knew he had rendered a service to mankind, unheralded, and unsung, but still a great service.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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