Pitt in the making: 1948 tales went from bizarre to adorable


If the first of April is for fooling people on purpose, maybe the last of April should be for offering unbelievable but true stories. Today’s Weird Pitt Tales — all from 1948 — start with a fake cancer clinic and end with puppies.

In November 1948, the city of Pittsburgh dragged the University into testing whether an amateur cancer detection and treatment clinic, run by a tire store manager and a former hospital cafeteria worker in the basement of a Bloomfield church, was the real deal.

The pair of unprofessional clinicians had already been arrested the previous month for practicing medicine without a license. But they still claimed they knew what specific food caused cancer, but were “unwilling to reveal this secret because they feared disturbing the economic status of the world,” one paper reported.

The story might have ended there, but a single Pittsburgh City Council member, whose father-in-law had already subjected himself to the supposed anti-cancer treatment, pressed local medical organizations to see whether there was anything in the blood tests and mysterious fluid being offered by these possibly mad non-scientists.

The Allegheny County Medical Society recruited a national cancer expert, Dr. R.R. Spencer, for advice, and Spencer headed to Washington, D.C., to ask the U.S. Public Health Service if it would approve a study of those who had already received the so-called treatment. Meanwhile, Pitt’s School of Medicine was examining the alleged cancer-detecting blood test.

The county group quickly determined that the treatment, a drink made from salt, yeast, whole wheat and water, was “worthless,” containing everything from bacteria to bugs.

The press nonetheless went wild with speculation. Perhaps only terminal patients should be part of this study. Perhaps it could rely on volunteers among the public. And Pitt’s Falk Clinic would certainly lend its clinical expertise to the testing procedure, the papers believed.

In the meantime, our duo of degree-free doctors would only reveal that their cancer treatment relied on mold growth. Further tests revealed they were at least correct on that score: the liquid contained three kinds of bread mold, but these were the kinds that caused, rather than cured, various diseases, the federal health service soon determined.

Pitt officials had apparently had enough by now: A report from University med school labs called the blood tests for detecting cancer “useless,” and the dean of the Pitt Medical Center said it was “ridiculous” to think any sort of experimental study of this pretend cancer treatment might be set up here.

The Pittsburgh Press finally editorialized that the entire episode was “weird beyond belief,” but — last the papers reported — another local physician had decided to operate his own private clinic to administer the entirely suspicious substance on Liberty Avenue.

Haven’t we been here before?

That same year, Pitt saw a nasty fire and the loss of its chemistry lab in a disaster that could have been predicted — by the very same disaster already befalling Pitt a dozen years earlier.

On May 31, 1948, Pitt’s chemical engineering and metallurgical laboratories, “housed in a huge frame structure on the upper campus,” burned down. “It was an old army barracks, built during World War One,” the Post-Gazette reported.

“Because of its high location on what is known as Minersville Hill, above the (Pitt) stadium, the flaming structure made a spectacular blaze, attracting hundreds of curious. … Within an hour the long frame structure was virtually leveled to the ground.” Low water pressure at that height prevented firemen from adequately battling the blaze. The only nearby structure was a carpentry building 150 feet away, the paper reported, while the half-million-dollar fire caused no injuries and only “a score of minor explosions.”

Apparently nothing had been learned from a Jan. 16, 1936 fire here, when “Pitt’s chemical laboratory, a long, two-story frame structure atop Herron Hill, directly above the (Pitt) stadium, went up in flames like a tinderbox,” the Post-Gazette said. “Thousands of students and nearby residents swarmed upon elevated vantage points to see the flimsy wooden building, erected originally as a wartime barracks (also left over from WWI) reduced to ashes within half an hour after the blaze broke out. Woefully inadequate water pressure, coupled with snow-covered condition of the ground, forced firemen to go through a futile effort to direct effective streams of water on the blaze. … The low water pressure was attributed to the fact that the ‘lab’ is on the very summit of Herron Hill.

“So intense was the heat that spectators crowding the embankment along the Pitt carpenter shop had to turn away their faces at intervals. The wooden sides of this (shop) building were blistered at the corner nearest the blazing laboratory. … The flames reached such heights and density that the resultant reddened sky was visible for miles around.”

Plenty of Pitt puppies

Finally, an event visible only to the students rushing to class in Alumni Hall (now Eberly Hall) on Feb. 6, 1936: a small spitz dog, later dubbed Sophie, quietly chose a landing on the building’s staircase that morning to give birth to four black puppies.

The dog had apparently wandered in from the cold, and its owner could not be found. Not counting a hospital room or laboratory cage, this is probably the only birth ever recorded in a Pitt-owned building, and it concluded happily, with Sophie and her offspring headed to the Humane Society.

No word on how many “Aws” the event elicited.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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