Staff Finds: Sean O’Faolain and Jean Mayer

By , December 17, 2010

While processing the papers of Dr. Jean Mayer (1920-1993), staff at the Center of the History of Medicine discovered a small cache of letters written between Mayer and Irish writer Sean O’Faolain in 1963. O’Faolain, born in Cork in Ireland in 1900, educated in Ireland and Boston, Massachusetts, and a former member of the Irish Republican Army, was a well-known short story writer and novelist. Holiday magazine, an American-based travel publication, commissioned him to write an article about the French Roman Catholic pilgrimage site, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.

He intended to examine the records of the Medical Bureau at Lourdes and felt he needed medical expertise in order to carry out his plan. He contacted Jean Mayer seeking a referral to a “French speaking physician with sufficient critical mind” to accompany him to Lourdes.  O’Faolain was hoping. according to the letter he wrote to Mayer from his home in Ireland in March of 1963, “…to examine the records of some famous case like that of Mme Rose Martin [who visited Lourdes]…after which she was allegedly ‘cured’ of cancer of the neck, and say whether he [the doctor] considered that the case had been fully and properly diagnosed and reported on…”

Since Mayer’s own expertise lay in the field of human nutrition, he was unable to assist O’Faolain personally. On O’Faolain’s behalf, he contacted Dr. Louis J. Verhoestraete of the World Health Organization who was able to suggest several physicians who might be interested in the project.

Mayer’s correspondence files do not report whether or not O’Faolain completed his trip successfully or whether the magazine published the finished article. The files do contain an enthusiastic “thank you” from O’Faolain in 1963 for Mayer’s efforts in putting him in touch with Professor Thiebaut who O’Faolain felt might be able to assist him with the project.

Jean Mayer was an Associate Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (1950-1976) and also President of Tufts University (1976-1992). He was born in Paris in 1920 and was considered a brilliant lycée student, graduating with high honors. After being commissioned in the French Army after the outbreak of World War II, he was captured by German forces. He escaped from a POW camp and served with the French underground, including time as a double agent for British intelligence in the Vichy government and as a staff member for General Charles de Gaulle in London. After 1945, Mayer married an American citizen and moved permanently to the United States, obtaining a doctorate from Yale University in 1948 and joining the Harvard faculty in 1950. Mayer’s research interests focused around human diet and nutrition; he was a well-known commentator on diet and food issues, as a Special Consultant on to President Nixon, organized the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

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