Hey, it’s Merrin’s Dad!
Retired doctor saddles up a Rough Rider biography
By CAROLYN POIROT
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
Before he ever started reading Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood’s personal letters, diaries and family documents, Dr. Jack McCallum knew intimate details about the general’s brain surgery.
McCallum, a neurosurgeon who practiced medicine in Fort Worth for 28 years before retiring last summer, says he was a first-year neurosurgery resident when he first heard stories about Dr. Harvey Cushing’s final attempt to remove the general’s brain tumor.
Cushing is considered the father of neurosurgery, and Wood, the legendary commander of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, was his best-known patient.
Wood “calmly chatted with the operating team” while “hundreds of arteries erupted in life threatening jets,” during the Aug. 6, 1927 surgery, McCallum writes in the new biography Leonard Wood: Rough Rider, Surgeon, Architect of American Imperialism (NYU Press, $34.95). The book opens with the scene of Wood bleeding to death on the operating table and Cushing lamenting that it was his failure in judgment that ended the gallant man’s life.
“Cushing is neurosurgery’s urban legend — so intolerable and arrogant, but he was a great surgeon,” says McCallum, who includes Cushing’s sketch of Wood’s tumor along with family photos of Wood and Roosevelt in his book. Best known for leading the charge up San Juan Hill, Wood, an 1883 graduate of Harvard Medical School, was a pretty good surgeon in his own right, McCallum says.
The Fort Worth doctor-turned-history professor at Texas Christian University decided to write the scholarly book after reading the only two previous Wood biographies. One was written shortly after Wood’s death by a personal friend who thought the Medal of Honor winner and former military governor of Cuba could do no wrong. The other was by an author who obviously disliked the former Army chief of staff who is credited with reforming military training and tactics and preparing the United States to enter World War I.
“I just think this guy deserves to be resurrected right now, and I wanted to get at the truth about him,” McCallum said during a recent visit at his home in Benbrook.
McCallum was interested in showing Wood’s legacy as one of the leaders of American imperialism at the close of the 20th century. After the Spanish-American War, Wood went into Cuba with a huge force and quickly overcame the 40,000 or so armed soldiers and police there.
“The insurrection never happened, thanks mostly to Wood’s leadership,” McCallum says. “Wood was hardworking, well-organized and honest to a fault. He made some mistakes, but for the most part, he made very, very smart decisions. We could learn a lot from him.”
In Cuba, Americans spent their time and money fixing harbors, building roads, stringing telegraph lines and establishing 3,600 public schools and 5,500 hospital beds, McCallum says.
His research at the Library of Congress included studying thousands of Wood’s letters and diary entries (Wood started keeping a diary at age 14 and stayed with it all his life), as well as court records. The information sheds new light on several controversial issues, including Wood’s role in establishing the Georgia Tech football program and the true story of the Republican Convention of 1920, says McCallum (who, coincidentally, earned his undergraduate engineering degree from Georgia Tech).
Roosevelt’s personal choice for president shortly before he died, Wood spent more money campaigning for the 1920 presidential nomination than anyone ever had before. At the last minute, though, “Big Jake” Hamon spread more than $1 million among delegates who agreed to vote for Warren G. Harding after Wood rejected Hamon’s offer to buy him the presidency in exchange for access to oil reserves in Mexico and federally controlled lands, especially the U.S. naval reserves at Teapot Dome.
“He told the general he would guarantee the nomination in return for the right to name the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and the secretary of the interior,” McCallum writes in the book. “Wood, purple with rage: said, ‘I am an American soldier. I’ll be damned if I betray my country. Get the hell out of here.’ ”
McCallum, who served as director of neurosurgery at Cook Children’s Medical Center and Baylor All Saints before returning to graduate school at TCU and earning both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in modern European history with a minor in military history, says he loves teaching. He will discuss the book at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta on Jan. 20 and on a future C-SPAN broadcast (no date has been set for the airing.) The book was published in early December.