An American Doctor's Odyssey

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Form and Content

In thirty chapters of autobiography, taken from letters, notes, diaries, and other memoranda, Dr. Victor George Heiser takes his readers on a forty-six-year journey through sixty countries (he worked in forty-five of them). An American Doctor’s Odyssey: Adventures in Forty-five Countries is arranged chronologically, with occasional flashbacks and asides. The narrative contains a frontispiece photograph of Heiser and a small black-and-white sketch at the beginning of each chapter. The book culminates in a six-page index of hundreds of names and places.

Orphaned in the Johnstown Flood of 1889, Heiser supported himself through a series of odd jobs while continuing the intense at-home educational preparation begun by his parents and taking enough courses to qualify for admission to medical school, which he completed in three years. Spurning private practice as a “retail effort,” Heiser was drawn toward the prevention rather than the treatment of disease. By a combination of serendipity and rigorous study, he was accepted into the Marine Hospital Service, where he began his public health career in 1898.

Because no immigration restrictions had been enacted until 1882 (when “lunatics” and “idiots” were barred), the United States had absorbed tens of thousands of “the lame, halt, and blind” by 1891, when the Marine Hospital Service took charge of screening “immigrants afflicted with loathsome or contagious diseases.” Heiser devised a quick and accurate screening procedure for the grossly understaffed service; his abilities soon took him from Boston to New York, and from there to Naples, where he eventually secured cooperation and the permission to screen aspiring emigrants before they left Europe.

Heiser’s delicately honed ambassadorial and legal skills prepared him for his tenure first as chief quarantine officer and then as commissioner of health in the Philippines, which were at that time administered by a series of United States governor-generals. By the time that he left the Philippines in 1914, he had also demonstrated the patience, ethics, fearlessness, and assertiveness that would cause the Rockefeller Foundation to recruit him to direct its international health division. In addition, Heiser had become an expert on preventing such diseases as malaria, cholera, bubonic plague, leprosy, yaws, typhoid fever, and smallpox.

The narrative is equally divided between Heiser’s experiences with U.S. immigration and with the Philippines (fifteen chapters) and his years of travel and labor for the Rockefeller Foundation (fourteen chapters). Chapter 30, “Grant but Memory,” contains his letter of resignation from that organization after he had “seen enough of the world” and a letter of thanks from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The narrative ends with Heiser’s realization that his life of service to “disease-bound millions” has amply compensated him for his bachelorhood and lack of close family ties.


An American Doctor’s Odyssey is appropriate for the mature young adult reader, but Heiser’s vocabulary and allusive style (one hapless hunter is “an internationally renowned Nimrod”) render the book inaccessible for most readers...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)