Of Germs and Judgment

The Sad Case of Tom Barrett

A tiny photo fragment in an old album: my grandparents Tom and Kitty Barrett. Out on the town. Very Jazz Age. Very 1920s. Kitty would have been in her early thirties. Tom, in his forties. I always think my grandfather looks like F. Scott Fitzgerald, both handsome Irish-American Midwesterners full of ambition.

This might have been the last photo of Tom Barrett. He died in 1926.

I’ve always heard that Tom Barrett was a germophobe. He was a smart guy. In 1920, a leading cause of death was influenza and pneumonia. The Spanish flu had just swept across the country. Kitty’s brother Joe and sister Julia both died of pneumonia and his son Bill nearly did. There were no antibiotics, no cures but time, clumsy palliatives, and luck.

So Tom Barrett never touched a door knob without a handerchief in his hand.

Then in September, 1926, he had a gall bladder attack. He sought treatment from physician and surgeon Frank E. Murphy.

Kitty was appalled. Dr. Murphy had treated their young son Bill for pneumonia. In trying to drain Bill’s pleural area of fluid, he had punctured and collapsed one of Bill’s lungs. And he left a sponge in the surgical wound that prevented healing till it was discovered weeks later. Bill had been sick for a very long time and Kitty was furious at his doctor.

But Tom reassured her. “Don’t you worry, Kitty. Everything will be just fine.”

But of course, nothing was fine. On September 18, he had surgery. On October 2, he died of peritonitis. At age 43, he left behind his wife, four children, and two grocery stores.

The event is remembered as a rare and terrible lapse of judgment by a brilliant and disciplined businessman. And so it goes.

An ironic footnote: a newspaper search of his physician revealed that Dr. Murphy himself died of pneumonia at age 51 (1944).

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