In The Doc and the Duchess: The Life and Legacy of George H. A. Clowes, Alexander W. Clowes details the life of his grandfather and the legacy he left behind. George H. A. Clowes played a pivotal role in the development of the insulin program at the Eli Lilly Company. This biography is an account of his life, from his childhood in England through his death in 1958.
Dr. Alexander Clowes died of cancer in 2015, shortly before his book was published. In this interview, his wife Susan Detweiler discusses the life of her husband, his grandfather's contributions to the medical field, and the legacy of his work and philanthropy.
When I retired from my full-time medical practice, I spent two years obtaining an MFA in nonfiction writing during which time I wrote a book. My husband Alec watched me do this, and we talked about my experience in the MFA extensively. For a long time, Alec had been interested in his forbearer, Sir William Clowes, surgeon to Queen Elizabeth I and the author of the first book on surgery written in English (as opposed to Latin), published in 1588. After a fair amount of research, Alec concluded that there was no new information on Sir Wm. Clowes. But by then, the idea of writing a book had captured his attention. I suggested he do one on George Henry Alexander Clowes, known as GHAC to the family. GHAC was mentioned in many books about the early history of insulin but none were specifically about him or focused on the significant American (i.e., Clowes’s and Lilly’s) contribution to making insulin rapidly available as a purified, standardized therapeutic product. Alec knew his grandfather and had extensive family archival material available. I encouraged him because Alec was so obviously the right person to do this—plus he was a physician and scientist and able to understand the scientific side of his grandfather’s career.
What kind of relationship did your husband have with his grandfather?
Alec spent every summer of his childhood in Woods Hole with his grandparents living in the large family home that GHAC built. So he was with his grandparents on a daily basis for three months of the year and also during the winter holidays. He knew them well. Alec was 11 years old and the oldest grandson when GHAC died, old enough to remember his grandparents in a personal way, especially his grandmother. He caddied for GHAC when he played golf and spent lots of time with his grandmother. Alec had a positive and affectionate relationship with each grandparent.
Did Dr. Clowes influence your husband’s decision to go into medicine?
I think Alec’s decision to go into medicine was primarily from his innate curiosity about science. Every summer he went to science camp at Woods Hole and he loved science throughout his schooling. He academically excelled in science. It was intellectually a good fit. His father, George Clowes, was a physician so that no doubt provided some influence though I do not believe George Clowes ever overtly encouraged Alec to go into medicine. I’m sure his grandfather did not either. Alec initially planned a career in physics but found his aptitude better suited to medicine in his last year of college. And although he planned to do pure research when he was in medical school, it was not until his residency in surgery that he surprised himself with how much he enjoyed patient care. In the end, he combined these two elements, pure research and surgery, into a career that he found very satisfying and intellectually fulfilling.
What surprising things did your husband discover about his grandfather during the course of his research for the book?
In terms of GHAC’s personal life, Alec was surprised by how loving and sentimental his grandfather was to his wife and his sister. Alec had access to the personal love letters written to his grandmother during their separations prior to their marriage and then occasionally after marriage. The letters by the grandmother didn’t survive; GHAC apparently didn’t save them, but the grandmother saved every one of his. The letters were flowery and full of expressions of romantic love. GHAC was also very attached to his sister and mother and wrote them many devoted letters.
In terms of his professional life, Alec was impressed with the depth of his grandfather’s research and professional standing prior to his joining the Lilly Company. He was a founding member of several important cancer research societies and highly regarded for his original observations. GHAC also remained an active investigator with a fairly robust career in research after his and Lilly’s contribution to the development of insulin. Alec was also impressed with his grandfather’s team-building skills, not only at Lilly and the MBL, but additionally in his philanthropic activities. GHAC knew how to get a job done be it in science or philanthropy.
One of Dr. Clowes’s major contributions to medicine was in the treatment of diabetes. Describe Dr. Clowes's role in the development of insulin.
A major portion of the book is devoted to GHAC’s role in the development of insulin. In short, GHAC had the prepared scientific mind and experience to recognize instantly the importance of the discovery of insulin. He made a bee-line to learn about it and contact the Canadian discoverers on behalf of Lilly. Then he was persistent in winning a collaboration with Toronto to manufacture insulin on terms fair to both the discoverers and Lilly. The Lilly Research Laboratory that he directed then markedly improved the method of manufacturing insulin resulting in a purified product that could be mass-produced and delivered to countless diabetics desperate for the product. This monumental feat was accomplished in record time—approximately 18 months.
Do you think Dr. Clowes has received enough recognition for the importance of his work in the development of insulin and his other scientific achievements? Why or why not?
This is a difficult question to answer. GHAC probably has not received as much recognition as he deserves. Banting and Macleod rightly deserve the credit for the discovery of insulin, but GHAC rightly deserves the credit for bringing insulin as a therapeutic product to the thousand upon thousands of diabetics desperate to receive it. Diabetes was a death sentence in 1922; GHAC’s work reversed that sentence. Had he not worked out a successful collaboration with the Canadians and had he not rapidly and markedly improved the techniques for manufacturing insulin, it would have taken much longer for insulin to become available to the world. Many, many lives were saved, most of them children.
In addition to being known in the medical field, the Clowes name is also recognized because of the family’s charitable giving. Why was philanthropy important to Dr. & Mrs. Clowes?
GHAC was a sophisticated individual who had lived in London and Germany with exposure to a breadth of culture far beyond that which most people in the Indianapolis of his day had known. He enjoyed art and music and wished to share that appreciation with others. He also was in the fortunate position of being relatively wealthy at a time when others were not (due to the Depression) and this brought out his basically generous nature. Generosity and stewardship of your community were Victorian values from his childhood that he carried within his personality throughout his life. His wife, Edith, was also very much of this mindset. As a young woman in Buffalo, she did charitable work with poor women and children, activities she continued throughout her life.
What impact has their philanthropy had on Indianapolis and beyond?
During the lifetimes of GHAC and Edith, they were major leaders in Indianapolis in art, music, education, and religion: the Clowes collection of old masters at the IMA, Clowes Memorial Hall for the symphony orchestra, rebuilding the episcopal church, starting the Orchard School, providing early support to Planned Parenthood, to name just a few of their major contributions. By establishing The Clowes Fund, GHAC and Edith founded a permanent source for funding philanthropic work within Indianapolis. Over the years as the second, third, and fourth generations of the family have become active in The Clowes Fund, the philanthropic reach of the fund has been extended to include New England and Seattle where family members now live. The mission of the fund has also been enlarged to include social service organizations in addition to art and music.
Your husband finished this book as he was fighting his own battle with cancer. Describe what it meant to him to get this book published despite everything he was going through.
Fortunately, the majority of the manuscript was finished before Alec became ill. He was able to continue to work on this book for about six months after he received his devastating diagnosis of glioblastoma, devoting as much time as he could to completing and editing the manuscript. It meant a great deal to him to know that the book would definitely be published. I personally shall forever be grateful to Dwight Burlingame for his assistance and to Indiana University Press for its help in expediting the decision to be the publisher of the book. Alec realized that the book would be part of his legacy to his family and to the history of insulin—and medicine in general.
Watch Alexander Clowes discuss The Doc and The Duchess and his grandfather's legacy in this video: