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Introducing Centenarian Extraordinaire Dr. Harold Brodman

anne w. semmes

There are reportedly nearly 100,000 centenarians living in the U.S. today, and according to the Census Bureau, nearly three times as many as there were some 40 years ago. And Greenwich is turning out to have a good number. So, on the first day of this January general surgeon Dr. Harold Brodman turned 100. The good doctor has lived a most singular and creative life. We caught up with him where he has lived the last ten years or more at the Edgehill retirement community in Stamford, having moved there from Old Greenwich, and we asked him a few questions.

GS: How did you celebrate your 100th birthday?

HB: My daughter Louise organized a brunch here, which included her husband, a terrific guy and a Princeton graduate and a lawyer. And my son Richard who gave birth to my only grandchild, Alexandra, who’s Phi Beta Kappa from Emory University, and currently married to one of the trustees of the New York Times – his mother is a Sulzberger.

GS: What do you attribute your longevity to?

HB: My general medical knowledge and these three things: Don’t smoke; don’t get fat. And pick your genes, your heredity, which is something you can’t do.
GS: How many hip, knee, or shoulder replacements have you had?

HB: I’m full of hardware.

GS: What are you most proud of in your life?

HB: The most significant thing is becoming a doctor. In my class of 1945 at the University
of Cincinnati College of Medicine there were only two girls, one of them became my [now late] wife, Elizabeth. And on the occasion of our 50th medical school reunion, a citation was given to the one who had achieved the greatest social importance as a doctor. One of our classmates had become a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. But the Dean gave the citation to my wife.

GS: What rules do you live by?

HB: Give, don’t take. Give service. When my wife became a doctor, she became a doctor because she wanted to be a medical missionary. My wife lost her mother when she was seven and left her father, who was a farmer in Ohio, with five girls, no boys for a farmer. And he couldn’t handle them. So, my wife was raised through the ninth grade by an Episcopalian convent, and she learned from them that the mission in life was to give service, not to be a taker.
My wife became a double professor because she’s one of the founders of pediatric anesthesiology as a separate specialty in America. And so, she was not only a professor of anesthesiology, but they also made her an honorary professor of pediatrics. That’s why I say I can’t give a history of my life without my wife being included.

GS: Tell us about your progeny?

HB: We had twin sons, but Charles committed suicide when he was 31. I think he was schizophrenic. I spent $100,000 the last year of his life for medical help but nothing helped.He was talented. He had seven licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration to repair airplanes. His twin brother Richard is a cardiothoracic surgeon. He’s old enough to be retired, but I think he was the greatest heart surgeon in America. His hands are like Baryshnikov dancing, beautiful. And he can do, without rushing, what any other surgeon can do but better and in half the time,
Medical school, the military, and mission work

GS: What decade meant the most to you?

HB: I loved being a medical student. I also graduated as an Alpha Omega Alpha – it’s like what Phi Beta Kappa is. I was the youngest in my class when we graduated. I was 22, the youngest doctor in America to the best of my knowledge.

GS: Did you serve in the military?

HB: I was a PFC in the Army then they made us First Lieutenant as that’s how a doctor starts off. I was stationed near Huntington in Long Island. I loved the Army. It gave me an opportunity to do research and get published. I did one of the early articles on Alzheimer’s disease. Before I had any surgical training, I had a patient that had a foreign body in his heart. And at that particular time, there was no heart surgery. I knew just where this foreign body was, from the EKG. And I took it out of his heart and published it in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And after, when I was discharged, I said to my wife, ‘I can, in 20 years, when I’m 40, be able to retire if I stay in the Army.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure I’ll be a General.’ And she said, ‘No, I’m not going to raise my kids all over the place.’

GS: So, what foods are important to you?

HB: What’s most important is that we have a balanced diet, which should include 10 essential amino acids, which the human body cannot synthesize from raw materials. That’s why the Asiatic Indians instinctively seem to know to have corn tortilla, beans. If you have corn and beans, you get the 10 essential amino acids.

GS: Tells us about your mission work?

HB: When my wife became a doctor, she became a doctor because she wanted to be a medical missionary. So, when daughter Louise was in kindergarten and my mother came and stayed, my wife says, ‘Well, I want to go now.’ I said, ‘I want to go with you, but I will not go under the auspices of religious organizations who want to proselytize and convert. I will go under one condition, that we go not to save lives, but to train people, to have students in the Third World.’ We first went to Afghanistan, to Kabul, under the auspices of Care. We were called Care Medical. Everything at our own expense. No salary. We were there about five weeks.

And then I went with my wife to Indonesia. People traveled from Hilton Hotel to Hilton Hotel. Not our style. We liked to get the dirt and the blood of the people and their culture under our fingernails. That’s why my wife got the award from the Dean. And then after she and my son went to China, he did the first implantable defibrillator in Hangzhou in China. And they came from as far away as Moscow to see him work.

And then my wife worked in the Middle East on the West Bank, also for Smile. We were invited by the Prime Minister of St. Lucia to come down there… and we were entertained at the presidential palace by the Prime Minister and his Scottish wife.

Art and Politics and Dreams

GS: What is your hobby?

HB: So, when I retired, I said I want to do wood carving. My grandfather was a cabinet maker. I was stimulated by the Rockefeller wing at the Metropolitan Museum, which we were members of and gave significant monies to. I liked the African wing and there was one piece of African wood carving there made by the Buli Master of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I don’t call it primitive art; I call it very sophisticated. I like to work out of one piece of found wood, not cut down trees. I like the thing to have a function. And it has to represent my experience or be salacious or erotic. I have a catalogue of my sculptures.

GS: What are you most concerned about?

HB: I’m most concerned about politics, in that we have people, lawyers who are politicians, and politicians who see what they can extract from society.

GS: If you could tell the President one thing right now, what would you tell him?

HB: Well, I’m basically a socialist, so I would tell him to nationalize national resources, coal and oil, the National Parks. Trump took national forests and turned them over to cattle raisers and they devastated them. I’m a devout Sierra Clubber.

GS: What’s your advice for the younger generation?

HB: Go to school and study and work hard.

GS: What’s on your bedside reading table?

HB: Well, I read the weekend New York Times and that keeps me busy. I’m particularly fond of the Book Review.

GS: Do you dream?

HB: Young men, universally, dream about sex. Since I’ve gotten older and retired, I dream about being in the operating room. Because one of the things that happens in the operating room, when a surgeon would get into trouble, it was the poor patient who needed help. The charge nurse would go scooting around the operating room to find me and I would have to bail that poor soul out.

GS: Do you believe in life after death?

HB: Absolutely not.

GS: If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for?

HB: My wife to come back to me.

GS: What are you looking forward to?

HB: You live only minute by minute. There’s no future.