Historical Essay: Reflections on my Great-Grandfather, Joseph C. Beck, MD

Joanne Tesler

Editor’s Note – I recently received an e-mail from Ms. Joanne Tesler inquiring if we had any information regarding her great – grandfather, Dr Joseph Beck who was ABEA president in 1936. I recalled the name, remembering that I had a book entitled “”Applied Pathology in Diseases of the Nose, Throat and Ear” by Joseph C. Beck, MD, FACS (C.V. Mosby, 1923, St. Louis). When he wrote it, he was Associate Professor in ENT at University of Illinois College of Medicine. I contacted Jessica Calabrese (Senior Manager of History and Archives at the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery) who was able to find me a photo of Dr Beck and an article by him entitled “My Otolaryngologic Hobbies”. This article was read at the 1936 Eastern Triological Society’s annual meeting, which turns out to be an interesting discourse on his life and interests. We were fortunate to have Ms Telser write a us a personal family remembrance of our former leader.

-Peter Koltai

Joseph C. Beck, MD
Joseph C. Beck, MD

I have always felt a special connection with my great grandfather, Grandfather Joseph, who I was named after ( the “Jo” in Joanne). His son, Philip, who he called a “naughty boy” and “a happy-go-lucky type of fellow” (1) was my loving grandfather, my friend and confident until he died just after his 80th birthday.

Although my grandpa Phil told me stories about his father, I didn’t get to really know him until one day, many years later, when I picked up his book “50 YEARS OF MEDICINE” that I had inherited.

In the chapter about his boyhood, as told by his second wife, I discovered that Joseph C Beck was born in 1870 in the small town of Dobrish, about 25 miles from Prague, in what was then Austrian Bohemia.

His childhood was not an easy one. When he was still a toddler his family moved to Vienna, but his mother perished there during a plague epidemic. Young Joe had an unstable youth; after his mother’s death his father wasn’t able to take care of all of his 5 children (four boys and a girl) so Joe was sent to live with various members of the family. After his father remarried he did return to live with him for a short time. Unfortunately Joe was only nine when his father passed away and once again he was sent from one family to another. He was a bright young man, but wasn’t able to attend school regularly due to having to move around so much and at times having to work.

Finally, at the age of 14 Joe was invited by his Aunt to move to the United States. It was in 1884 that Joe and his brother Rudolph finally arrived in the town of Holden Missouri where his Aunt had settled. He studied in the local school for three years, before running away to work and to taste city life. He was in Chicago when his Uncle convinced him to return to Holden, where Joe stayed until he was 20.

Meantime, Joe’s oldest brother Carl had arrived in the US and settled in Chicago where he opened a doctor’s office. Other family members had also settled in Chicago so Joe moved there to be closer to them. He eventually started working for his brother as a driver and an assistant to help with surgical dressings. Inspired by Carl, Joe decided he would also become a doctor. He found a day job in a drug store and a private tutor was hired to help him with his studies. This hard work paid off and in 1891 Joe was admitted to the Chicago College of Physicians and Surgeons, which later became the medical department of the University of Illinois.

In spite of not having been to elementary or high school, Joseph C BECK graduated with honors, ranking third out of 300 students!

Among his many medical accomplishments he opened a hospital with his brothers, invented a tool to remove tonsils which was universally used for many years, was one of the first surgeons to perform facial reconstruction (now known as plastic surgery) and was a founding member of many associations including the ABEA which he presided over in 1936.

Anyone interested in knowing more about Joseph C. Beck’s medical life should read his book, which I found most fascinating.

I would like to share a funny story showing how small the world is and how I reconnected with my great-grandfather.

During WW1 my great-grandfather ended up running the American Red Cross Hospital in Cognac, France as a doctor for the Czechoslovakian army. During his stay there he had to deal with an outbreak of the influenza epidemic (the “Spanish” flu). Not having enough room for his patients he appealed to the Martelle and Hennessey Cognac Manufacturing and Bottling Company (2). Mr Hennessey offered him the top floor of one of his warehouses in which a makeshift hospital was set up. However milk, the mainstay during the influenza epidemic, became scarce and as Joe says his patients had a mortality rate of 42% and were “dying like flies”. In spite of an ordinance forbidding alcohol in American hospitals, Joe accepted Mr Martelle’s offer of as much cognac as he wanted and made up a solution of cognac and water that was given to the patients “ad libitum”. Joe describes the situation the very next day; “perhaps coincidently”, he says, ” the death rate dropped to 27% and never did it rise above that.” In fact, after five weeks of this treatment the terrific epidemic came to an almost complete end.

I myself have been living in France for many years and love to tell French people how my great-grandfather found a cure for the Spanish flu using French cognac! One day I suggested to one of my students that he drink some cognac for a bad cough and to my surprise he told me that in HIS family that is exactly what they also do! It turned out that not only did he come from Cognac, but HIS GREAT-GRANDFATHER had been treated in the American Red Cross Hospital in Cognac during WW1. His great-grandfather had suffered from exposure to mustard gas – one of the injuries that MY great-grandfather Joe had treated.

So here I am, living far from home, but somehow, still connected to my dearly beloved Great –grandfather Joe.

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