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Humanly Possible

Donald Lathrop ’56: activist, humanist, philosopher, inventor, semi-retired professor

By Joanne Silver
Photography by Patrick O’Connor

Transformations speaks with two inspiring alumni—one at the beginning of her career, the other nearing the end of his—whose passions merge science with life for the greater good.

Don Lathrop is delighted. “I finally figured out how to carry five vases to school,” he says, holding up a makeshift tray of flowers from his garden, all intended for colleagues at Berkshire Community College. An ingenious combination of cut juice bottles, water bottles, and duct tape provided the solution. Indeed, none of the plastic vases has fallen over in the car ride from his home in Canaan, N.Y., to Pittsfield, Mass. As his six o’clock class approaches, Lathrop’s tightly packed bouquets still radiate color and good health.

Finding a place for the tray is a different sort of feat. Behind a door with a poster announcing “Nuclear Free Zone,” Lathrop’s office brims with the trappings of an insistently fertile mind. Shelves hold hundreds of books, assorted blue glass vessels, wooden sculptures, and miscellaneous gizmos. Posters, photographs, artworks, and political buttons crowd the walls. One button, designed by the professor, bears the picture of a classical torso and the words: Venus de Milo did it. Disarm.

Humor and an urgent message find their way into many of Lathrop’s enterprises—from his poem “To A Square Soap Bubble” to his courses in the “Peace and World Order Studies” department he founded. At 71, the graduate of what was then an all-male Worcester Tech has cut back on his course load, but not on his commitment to nurturing peace and creativity.

In September, he coordinated buses to an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C. He still participates in a peace vigil every Thursday, as he has for the past three years. He writes letters to editors of newspapers about issues global and local, and he composes poems grappling with subjects ranging from his wife’s cancer to starving children in war-torn countries. His own bout with cancer inspired a poem about the ill effects he experienced not from the disease, but from the painkiller Oxycontin. Lathrop continues to work with his wife, Marion, on the Never Again Campaign, which the two developed in the 1980s to promote international understanding and spread the message of survivors of the atom bombs dropped on Japan.

As a boy, Lathrop had not yet discovered this voice. “I remember sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s house when Pearl Harbor came on the radio,” he recalls. “And, much to my current sadness, I don’t remember any grief over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time. I had cousins serving in the Pacific, and my family was just happy they would be coming home.” Now that he knows a number of A-bomb survivors, several of whom have come to visit, he cannot view history as separate from the lives of individuals.

“I didn’t want to be in the Army,” Lathrop says, but at the end of high school, he had to register. “It showed my cowardice. I hadn’t reached the point of King or Ghandi,” he admits. “You have to know what you’re willing to die for.” After WPI, at Fort Monmouth, N.J., he ended up teaching basic electricity and repair, and he realized he didn’t like the Army, but he did like teaching. After a few brief engineering stints, he began a long career in the classroom, first as a physicist, and then gradually meandering toward the humanities. Perhaps he should have seen that change coming. Although his B.S. is in mechanical engineering, Lathrop’s favorite class at WPI was Professor Donald Johnson’s course on the history and philosophy of ideas. He describes his later academic shift matter-of-factly: “When I taught freshman physics, I probably knew the answer. When I teach the meaning of life, I probably don’t.”

Even his own existence is shrouded in uncertainty. Adopted by an older couple in New York, Lathrop never knew anything about his birth parents. When his mother and father died during his college years, Lathrop was offered a chance to see his birth certificate. Instead, he had it destroyed. “I’m a planetary citizen,” he says. “This is my planet. I have enough trouble being me to want to be someone else, too.”

In the process of becoming himself, Lathrop has learned a lot from figures both famous and little known. Active in the civil rights movement, he and Marion went to Washington in 1963 and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I have a dream” speech. More locally, Lathrop mentions Frances Crowe as a person who “inspired people up and down the Pioneer Valley.” In early fall, he heard antiwar activist/mother Cindy Sheehan speak at the rally in Washington. Over the years, students from America, Ghana, Japan, Germany, Russia, Myanmar, and elsewhere have lived with the Lathrops as the visitors pursued studies and various activist enterprises. In each case, the professor has seen the interaction as an opportunity to expand his knowledge and his awareness of other points of view.

The same desires motivate him in the evening philosophy class he teaches on world security and sustainability. Ten students from 20 to 70 years old gather in the classroom that once housed Lathrop’s creativity class. Leftover student mobiles dangle from every patch of ceiling, giving a festive air to the excruciatingly bland cinderblock environment. “Do you have enough money?” Lathrop begins. One by one, the men and women volunteer their answers. A young man in a Red Sox shirt says he has to wait until payday to fill up his tank with gas. Others feel more secure. All come to realize the question has less to do with an amount than an approach to living. “My roommate and I discuss these things,” a 20-something woman responds, adding that she believes she is in the prime of her life. Lathrop smiles. “I’m glad to hear you say you’re in the prime of your life,” he says. “I am, too. So many people never get to their prime. I don’t mean they die. They’re just never there.”

Erica Tworog-Dube ’00: genetic counselor, improving the lives of children and adults

Quiet fills the waiting room of the National Birth Defects Center. With no little riders in sight, the toy cars are neatly parked against a wall of windows. Stuffed animals rest on shelves. Cardboard bricks stand in a corner, ready for a new construction project. On this late summer Friday morning, the people who usually visit the Waltham, Mass., office are not in clinic, but they’re not far from Erica Tworog-Dube’s mind. The young genetic counselor is busy pursuing leads that might help improve the lives of the children and adults who seek out her services.

Working with a team of specialists that includes Dr. Rhonda Spiro and Dr. Murray Feingold, who is also known for his regular appearances on Boston television and radio, Tworog-Dube spends her days—and often significant chunks of her evenings—investigating the chance occurrences that lead to various genetic disorders. Armed with knowledge and curiosity, she guides children, couples in the midst of a pregnancy, and those contem- plating pregnancy toward more fulfilling lives. She coordinates the care of specialists for those born with hereditary disorders and proposes testing for families facing increased odds of a genetic disease. She also intervenes when bureaucracies stand in the way of such services as speech therapy for youngsters living with birth defects.

Despite a scientific background, Tworog-Dube seems more comfortable with questions than answers. She understands that all the genetic testing in the world cannot decide what is right for any one person. And so, the woman who pursued a double major in the humanities and biotechnology at WPI before studying genetic counseling at Brandeis University is quick to speak of the value of myths. Not the ancient type, with legions of gods reigning over the land and seas. Tworog-Dube studies the myths families unwittingly create as they try to make sense out of their loved ones’ disabilities.

“I have the opportunity to learn so many family histories, family myths,” she says. “‘Grandpa Joe had that because he fell from a tree,’ or, ‘Mom had that because she got sick when she was pregnant.’”

“Myths are useful,” she adds, sitting in her office amid folders, science texts, medical test kits, an Ansel Adams photograph of mountains, and a photo with her husband, Matthew Dube ’00, taken at their wedding on a Cape Cod beach. “They give me an avenue to explore the issues from the family’s perspective. Understanding what they thought their child had acknowledges their existing beliefs. It gives me a language to talk with the family.”

She realizes that whatever information she imparts will be absorbed in the context of the anecdotes that have been passed along for years and possibly generations. Words become crucial.

“Humanities plays an indirect role,” she explains, crediting courses by Professors Wesley Mott (literature) and Steven Bullock (history) for furthering that side of her learning. Phrases can be supportive or dangerous. “For a while,” she says of a practice now on the wane, “people put ‘FLK’ in a child’s chart—for ‘funny looking kid.’ The role of a genetic counselor is to bring sensitivity and educate people why that is entirely inappropriate.”

It was a role in a play that first sparked Tworog-Dube’s interest in the field. As a high school student in Maine, she acted the part of a girl with PKU, an inherited condition that results in mental retardation unless a strict diet is followed. At WPI, her passions for science and writing guided her two Major Qualifying Projects: one, on wealth and the American dream, for which she won the Provost’s MQP Award; the other, on protein expression in earthworms. In addition, she earned WPI’s prestigious Two Towers Award during her junior year. Tworog-Dube proceeded to volunteer at a genetic coun-seling clinic in Springfield, Mass., work in bioresearch for Abbott Laboratories, and then embark on several internships—from Concord, Mass., to Newcastle, Australia—while a graduate student at Brandeis.

Now, after two years in her current position, she realizes the value of WPI’s founding principle of combining theory and practice. Because her patients are often seen by many specialists, she has to be able to deal with biological factors, legal issues, and social considerations, while never losing sight of the human beings themselves. She mentions a little boy she started seeing in 2003, shortly after he was born. At the time, the pediatrician noted that the child had poor muscle tone.

“We don’t yet have a diagnosis for this little boy,” Tworog-Dube says, as she outlines the high and low points in the life of the toddler and his family. “Since he was born he has had developmental delays—in his motor skills and speech. He has had some feeding problems. The mom became pregnant again, and that baby was born this spring, also with some muscle problems. Some of the issues overlap. The parents are so strong, though. So upbeat. You can see it in the way the older boy has caught up in some areas.”

Genetic testing certainly gets a lot of attention these days, and Tworog-Dube acknowledges that new tests become available all the time. Just as critical, however, is the variety of services she coordinates as part of a person’s care. If a child has a particular diagnosis associated with heart problems, she makes sure to check for heart problems on a regular basis. If a child is not speaking, she might arrange to have sign language introduced. Finding the right solution can require the expertise of a scientist and the creativity of an artist. Weathering the difficult times demands another set of strengths. Tworog-Dube admits, “It is emotionally draining. There are days when you’re dealing with kids who are not doing very well, parents who are very high-risk. Sometimes these are not happy endings.”

Whenever possible, she focuses on what can be done—on beginnings, not endings. With couples planning to have children, including those undergoing assisted reproductive procedures, she can help sort through the genetic testing available and the difficult choices that might ensue. Here, too, Tworog-Dube emphasizes options. “Testing can offer reassurance, if it comes back negative,” she says. If not, “You can prepare medically. Instead of having a home birth with a nurse midwife, you might go to Children’s Hospital, where there’s a cardiologist. I try not to assume anything. I walk through it in relation to their own experiences and priorities.”

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Last modified: Dec 21, 2005, 11:50 EST
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