Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct a claim that sexologist John Money performed a sex-change operation on a child. He recommended the procedure, but he did not carry it out. The Sun regrets the error.
Sean Penn has been in the news lately — not for his acting ability but for his journalism skills. Recently Mr. Penn traveled to Mexico to interview "El Chapo" Guzman, the well known drug lord. Although I am not sure how much Mr. Penn gleaned from the Guzman interview, the publicity caused me to think about some of the so-called legends I've interviewed throughout the years — right here in Baltimore.
Medicine and sports are legendary in our town. Discoveries, medical breakthroughs, famous games — all warranted articles. I interviewed Michel Mirowski, the inventor of the portable implantable defibrillator, a device the size of a cigarette pack that could prevent someone from having a heart attack (Dr. Levi Watkins, who passed away last year, implanted the first defibrillator into a patient at Johns Hopkins in 1980). For a follow-up interview, Dr. Mirowski invited me to lunch at the Mount Washington Tavern. He ordered liverwurst, and I wondered to myself how the good doctor could eat something that seemed so revolting. (Apologies, of course, to liverwurst lovers.)
Writing about food, another interesting scientist I interviewed was Ernest Bueding, one of the first researchers to document the relationship between cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) and preventing cancer. The Bloomberg School of Public Health is continuing to do research on this topic today. When, a year or so after our interview, I read that Dr. Bueding had died of cancer in 1986, I was sadly reminded of that old adage: "physician, heal thyself."
Hugh Taylor, an ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute, traveled the world attempting to eradicate the five major causes of blindness, a list I never forgot: trachoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and onchocerciasis (or river blindness, common in certain parts of Africa). After that interview, I became friends with Hugh and his wife Liz, also a doctor, and when they returned to their native Australia, I visited them there.
The strangest doctor I ever interviewed was John Money, the controversial sexologist, who recommended what was perhaps the first sex-change operation on an 18-month-old boy whose penis had been burned off by electrical equipment during a botched circumcision. He told the child's parents that if they raised their son as a girl at such a young age, that it would determine gender. His office was in Hopkins' Henry Phipps Clinic (where Zelda Fitzgerald was treated), a Gothic-looking structure that always reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe's "House of Usher."
Dr. Money regaled me with tales of patients who, among other behaviors, cut off their limbs in order to appear more attractive to the opposite sex. As gross as that seemed to me, I was amazed at how many magazines bought my Dr. Money interviews.
Then there were the sports figures. For a piece called "Where Are They Now?" I interviewed former Colts Bobby Boyd, Ordell Braase and Bill Pellington. By the time I got to Johnny Unitas, I knew all about the "Sudden Death Game," also called "the greatest game ever played," when the Colts beat the Giants in 1958. In fact, on an entire living room wall of Unitas' home was a huge black and white photo of that very game.
One of my funniest memories was sitting at the bar waiting to interview former Colt linebacker Bill Pellington, when the man sitting on the stool next to me said I really should be interviewing him. He said he had been the pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers (for four years in the late 1940s, I later found out). Growing up in New Jersey, I rooted for the Yankees. In fact, one of my mother's first-grade students was the son of a Yankees coach and we sometimes were given tickets to Yankee Stadium.
Anyhow, I said (rather unkindly in retrospect), "I never heard of you." Without missing a beat, Rex Barney said, "well, I never heard of you!"
For one of the first articles I ever wrote in Baltimore, approximately 35 years ago, I interviewed casting director Pat Moran, who helped cast "Veep," "The Wire" and "Lincoln," among other shows and movies. Today, Pat is still providing stars for nearly all films made in Maryland. And I bet she even knows Sean Penn.