My grandfather: a man I’m proud to have known

To be blunt, my grandfather is responsible for saving the lives of millions of people.  He died on June 1st, 2005 at the age of 94.  By the time I was old enough to realize the magnitude of what he had done, his brilliant mind had been deteriorating for a number of years.

My grandfather was an OBGYN whose research was directed towards the infamous Rh Factor.  I am not a doctor, but here’s what I know about this problem.  Most people are Rh positive, meaning that they have the Rh factor in their red blood cells.  That’s what that little + or – after your blood type indicates.  The Rh factor does not hurt the individual whose blood it is in the least bit.  However, if a mother is Rh-, and her unborn child is Rh+, serious problems occur.  The mother’s body treats her child’s blood as a threat to her body, and her immune system begins to fight the “foreign invader” off.  Normally, the first pregnancy does not result in any serious problems because the mother’s body does not have enough time to develop antibodies to fight off what it perceives to be a threat.  By the time the mother can produce antibodies, the child is already developed enough that the antibodies cannot harm him.  However, subsequent pregnancies are problematic.  If any subsequent child is Rh+, then the antibodies will attack the unborn child with severe side effects, which include mental retardation or very frequently death. 

When this problem was isolated about 50 years ago, the entire OBGYN community was racing to find a way to prevent these problems from occuring.  My grandfather–working all by himself– single-handedly developed the process for eliminating the problems associated with the Rh factor, the process which has an unheard of 100% success rate, the process which is still used today.  The solution is very simple:  when the Rh- mother has her first Rh+ pregnancy, my grandfather took the antibodies from another mother whose body had developed them in response to her Rh+ child.  He then inserted them into the mother who was having her first Rh+ pregnancy at a point when the child is developed enough that it won’t get injured.  The mother’s body, sensing that there are antibodies already in her blood, does not develop her immune system so as to produce her own antibodies.  Therefore, in future Rh+ pregnancies (in which this process of injecting antibodies into the mother’s blood must be repeated), the mother will not have an immune response to her own child. 

My grandfather did his research so quietly that he had tested his procedure on over 500 patients in the two year period before he released his results.  74 of those women had subsequent pregnancies, producing 79 healthy children.  None of the 500 women were sensitized, meaning that the success rate of the vaccination was 100%.  The entire medical community was stunned, and my grandfather’s work was quickly adopted by the entire medical world.  People were absolutely shocked that a Midwestern doctor–working all by himself–was able to do what the entire medical community had failed to do, two years prior to anyone even thinking about using the methods that my grandfather used.  

But if the story ended there, my grandfather would merely be remembered for his research and brilliant mind.  But there is another part of the story which demonstrates his sanctity.  Normally, people can make a lot of money by patenting work such as my grandfather’s.  But my grandfather realized that if he wasted time getting his work patented, he would have complete control of the production lines, meaning that people worldwide would not get the treatment they needed while he was squaring away his legal rights over his work.  Instead, he refused to patent his work so that people would get the help they needed as soon as possible.  He refused a large fortune so that others might live.  What makes the story even more fascinating is that because my grandfather worked alone independent of the entire medical research community, his name was initially swept under the table when it came time to pat people on the back for defeating the Rh factor.  It was only later in a journal called the Green Journal and in a book called the Rh Factor (I’m trying to find the name of the author) that the history books finally began to acknowledge the incredible importance of my grandfather’s work.  But if I were in my grandfather’s shoes and I realized that not only was I foregoing financial rewards for my risks, but that I wouldn’t even be formally recognized for my work until about the time of my death, I would have fought for patent rights just to get the recognition that I deserved.  But not my grandfather.  He was too humble to do something so proud. 

By a doctor’s standards, my grandfather died a poor man.  When he was doing his research, no one would give him funding because they were uneasy about something he was doing in regards to the unprocessed plasma that he used (unprocessed plasma carries the risk of passing on a certain form of hepatitis.  My grandfather made sure that he only took such plasma from women with an immaculate bill of health.  None of his patients ever got said hepatitis).  Consequently, he funded all of his research out of his own pocket.  And since he received no money via patenting his work, he never received financial compensation even after his gamble paid off.  Instead of money, he preferred to help others.  Given that in two years at his small practice he delivered 79 babies that would have otherwise died, I am dumbfounded whenever I think how many people were saved worldwide by this research, research which my grandfather pioneered. 

My grandfather did  receive a lot of recognition for his work after the fact.  Whenever I go to a retirement home and introduce myself as Paul Hamilton, many people immediately ask if I am related to Eugene Hamilton.  They tell stories about how their lives were saved by my grandfather, or how my grandfather saved their children’s lives.  My sister once gave a presentation on the Rh factor in high school, and her teacher broke down in tears because her life had been saved by my grandfather’s research (in fact, her mother was one of those original 500 patients). 

Unfortunately, as a child I was not mentally mature enough to understand the magnitude of my grandfather’s work.  And up until a few years ago, I was not old enough to realize how rare the virtue which my grandfather exhibited is in this world.  I have few memories of him, but in all of them I am amazed at how such a humble, soft-spoken man changed the world so much.  May God rest his soul.

EDIT:  I added a few more details to my original post.

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5 Comments on “My grandfather: a man I’m proud to have known”

  1. Joel Says:

    I learned a lot about the Rh factor in school, but never heard the full story including the research and decision to forego financial compensation in the interest of saving lives… a very proud heritage and legacy…very edifying.

  2. Pontificator Says:

    My mother lost three children because of the Rh factor. I give thanks for the good work of your grandfather.

  3. Joel, did you hear anything in particular about my grandfather in school, or did you just learn about the Rh factor itself?

    By the way, the name of that journal is the Green Journal. I’ll have to see if my grandmother can remember what issue it was in. I have a photo copy of the text in which he was mentioned sitting in front of me now, but nowhere on it is the date of the journal mentioned. The Green Journal calls my grandfather’s paper one of the most remarkable works that had ever appeared in that journal. There is also a book called the Rh Factor (whose author’s name I’m trying to discover) which mentions my grandfather’s research, explaining how fantastic his results were.

  4. Joel Says:

    Unfortunately, I did not. I wish I did though, he sounds like an amazingly holy man.

  5. I’ll be sure to pass this on to my mom. She’s a Med Tech, and I remember hearing about the Rh factor from pretty much the time I could walk. Amazing that one man changed medicine forever in this way! As a patent attorney, I particularly appreciate that he realized that the patent monopoly is given for the good of the public, and if it is just going to amount to a restriction on the ability of the public to enjoy what you patented, you shouldn’t get a patent.

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