“Have you ever heard of Paul Dudley White?” asked an atrial fibrillation patient being treated by American Heart Association President Elliott Antman, M.D. Dr. White is lionized as a pioneering heart specialist.
He was the famous doctor who once cared for President Dwight Eisenhower after a heart attack and was a founding member of the AHA. But what the patient said next is what really surprised Antman.
“I knew him,” said Howard Smith, 91. “I have one of his old electrocardiogram machines. You can have it if you’d like.”
Smith was a longtime friend of the White family, having spent years as their veterinarian. Shortly before White’s death, the family gave Smith one of the machines that White had once used to record the electrical signals from the heart.
The device resided at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where Antman is a senior physician, along with his other duties as AHA president and as professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School — positions also once held by White.
As part of his legacy as AHA president, Antman donated the ECG machine in November 2014 – the AHA’s 90th anniversary.
Housed in a 28-pound wooden box with “Paul Dudley White, M.D.” engraved into a silver plate on the lid, the machine is now displayed among a multitude of other White memorabilia at the organization’s national headquarters in Dallas.
“I thought it was important that a piece of medical history once owned by such an important figure in the history of cardiology and of the American Heart Association should be housed at the association — and it just worked out that I was able to donate it during a historic year,” Antman said.
Before the ECG was invented and put into clinical practice in the early 1900s, the only tools doctors had to diagnose heart problems was a stethoscope and their own eyes, ears and hands. Smith actually used this particular ECG once — on a horse. He showed the results to an amused White, who years earlier had done ECG research of his own on whales and elephants.
White and five other doctors founded the AHA in 1924 at the Drake Hotel on Chicago’s lakefront. When Antman spoke in Chicago in November at Scientific Sessions, the AHA’s flagship scientific conference, he pointed to White’s ECG on stage while delivering his presidential address.
“They started this lifesaving organization just four miles away from where you’re sitting right now,” he told the crowd. “Yet, it was worlds away when you consider what we can offer patients today.”
Back at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, Smith said the first time he met White was in the late 1950s. White needed someone to care for his family’s pets and had heard good things about the veterinarian. One afternoon the two went out for lunch, meeting at White’s Boston office that was right around the corner from the elite Harvard Club.
“I had on my best suit and looked pretty sharp,” Smith said. “And where did we end up, but a drugstore counter for lunch. That’s the kind of person he was — one of the most humble men I’ve ever met and just a brilliant doctor.”
Smith’s father was among the thousands of patients White treated over the course of his illustrious 59-year career.
When the elder Smith died of heart disease, White wrote a poignant letter to his old friend: “My sorrow over your father’s death and my deep sympathy with you all compel me to write you this little note of consolation and at the same time to emphasize the great importance of the challenge to the health of the American people today as exemplified by your father’s illness. … It is clear that our attacks on this dreaded disease must be chiefly from the angle of prevention. … In a few years we shall I think have some answers, but we must everlastingly keep at it.”
Smith is now happy that the ECG machine he once treasured has found its way to the organization that White helped found. “It’s where it belongs,” he said.