A Catskill Catalog: June 9, 2010
Orvan W. Hess grew up in Margaretville. His family moved up here in 1908 from Pike County, Pennsylvania, downriver on the Delaware. It wasn’t a happy move: little Orvan’s mother had just died. I would guess she died trying to give birth to another child. Maybe that’s why Orvan became an obstetrician.
Lots of women died in childbirth in the first years of the 20th century. My maternal grandmother died before she turned 30, trying to bear a stillborn son.
Visits to early cemeteries often reveal a series of wives per husband, with tragically early death too common among young women.
Dr. Orvan W. Hess was a major contributor to the advancement of obstetrics and gynecology as branches of scientific medicine. He pioneered the use of penicillin. He invented the fetal heart monitor. He was a clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. He was a Catskill Mountain kid.
The Hess house was on Orchard Street in Margaretville, a stately white clapboard Victorian that sits elegantly on a gentle rise above the street. Behind it is a barn, a stable actually, a proper Victorian village livery. One summer, years ago, I painted it, along with a partner. Dr. Hess’s sister lived there then, although, I think, by that time, the house was mostly used summers.
Little Orvan attended the village school, a short walk from his home. The grades were organized two to a classroom, up to grade eight. Orvan was smart, a good student. Perhaps, he skipped a grade or two. By early adolescence, Orvan entered the Academic Department of Margaretville High School. The Margaretville Firehall now occupies that old school building.
Margaretville High School attracted the best students from the Town of Middletown’s 26 common schools, mostly one-room rural schools that served an area in a valley, hamlet, or hollow no bigger than five square miles. Students from as close as New Kingston often boarded in Margaretville to attend school.
Going to high school was a big thing. Graduating, even bigger. Most kids left school after eighth-grade.
Orvan Hess was an honor student, interested in the sciences. He fell under the sway of Dr. Gordon Bostwick Mauer, the young Yale grad who had come to Margaretville to practice hands-on rural medicine, who started the Margaretville Hospital in his own house.
The presence of Dr. Maurer’s sister, Carol, was another reason young Orvan had to hang out at Dr. Maurer’s. Carol Maurer became Orvan Hess’s wife of 70 years. They married in 1928, a year after Orvan graduated from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, a school Dr. Maurer had urged him to attend.
From Lafayette, Orvan went to medical school at the University of Buffalo. After an internship at Buffalo’s Children’s Hospital, Dr. Hess accepted a residency at New Haven Hospital. Soon, he was a fellow and clinical instructor at Yale.
In 1942, Dr. Hess participated in the first successful clinical use of penicillin. A patient, Anne Miller, was clearly dying. “Doctors had done everything possible, both surgically and medically,” Dr. Hess told a 1998 interviewer for Yale-New Haven Magazine. The obstetrician-gynecologist went to confer with the patient’s internist, Dr. John Bumstead.
Dr. Bumstead was asleep in the medical library. I guess professional courtesy precluded waking up the sleepy internist, so Dr. Hess sat and waited. He described to his interviewer his eureka moment.
“While I was waiting for him to wake up, I sat and read the latest Reader’s Digest, in which there was an article called ‘Germ Killers From Earth,’ about the use of soil bacteria to kill streptococcal infection in animals. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had something like this gramicidin mentioned in the Reader’s Digest?”
Dr. Hess’s suggestion led Dr. Bumstead to procure some penicillin from researchers nearby. They gave Mrs. Miller a shot, and, the next day, her fever broke. Anne Miller lived to be 90!
In 1979, Dr. Orvan Hess received the “Scientific Achievement Award” from the American Medical Association for this breakthrough medical moment.
Dr. Hess’s greatest achievement, however, was the development of the fetal heart monitor. He began tinkering on it in the 1930s, frustrated by the confusion and clinical inaccuracy of stethoscopes trying to monitor two different heart beats during labor contractions. This three-sound welter of pulses made it extremely difficult to identify a fetus in distress until it was too late.
By 1957, he and Dr. Edward Hon had built a six-foot contraption that was the first machine to measure, continuously, the electrical signals produced by the fetal heartbeat. Use of the fetal heart monitor soon became standard obstetrical procedure.
Dr. Hess continued, for many years, to practice in New Haven and teach at Yale, while maintaining the family’s Catskill Mountain home in Margaretville. He died in September 2002, one of the most celebrated medical practitioners of the 20th Century, a Catskill Mountain kid.