Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 1949 | Features

Dr. Arthur Steindler

By Vernon Langille
Dr. Arthur Steindler in his office

A Nineteenth Century biographer once wrote: "If you want to know what makes a great man great, look first inside his mind and then inside his heart." In the case of Dr. Arthur Steindler, distinguished professor and retired head of orthopedics at the University college of medicine, the mind is a marvelous collection of functional knowledge—useful facts, sound beliefs, workable concepts. As for the heart, there has never been much room in it for anything but generosity, gratitude and kindness.

Dr. Steindler is probably the least publicized great man in the whole field of American medicine. The few times when he has been the subject of a popular article he literally never has been in it. Many famous stories are told about the great surgeon's colorful personality. His professional achievements have received wide acclaim within the realm of medicine. And yet when these measurable qualities are added together, they amount to something considerably less than the whole—which is the man himself.

Because he has been written about, but has never really appeared in any article, Steindler dislikes publicity. In fact, upon his own request, he was not consulted in the writing of this short biography. The truth is that you can't write about Steindler, you have to write into him.

A common remark attributed to those who know him is that he is positively the finest man they have ever met. He is friendly and easy to approach. Still, there is a certain electrifying shock to meeting him for the first time.

"Meeting Steindler is like walking into an intellectual explosion," one of his student doctors once remarked. "He has the keenest mind in medicine."

While nearly everyone is at first flabbergasted by the great surgeon's brain power, his mother (who attended the university at the age of 85 for the sheer pleasure of learning) never admitted that her only son was anything but smart.

"Arthur is just smart," she explained modestly.

This stands as the late Mrs. Caroline Steindler's most classic excursion into the realm of understatement.

Within the scholarly-finished Steindler mind, you can discover the following, to mention only a few things:

A speaking, reading and writing fluency in six languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Czechoslovak) besides a scholar's familiarity with Latin and Greek; the equivalent of degrees in both engineering and higher mathematics (studied independently); a musical proficiency that approaches the concert artistic level; an expert's knowledge of science and a full appreciation of the humanities, not to mention a pre-eminence among doctors in the whole field of orthopedics.

Among generous matters dictated by the heart, there are these examples:

Dr. Steindler's home has long been an "Hotel Splendide" for the wandering great from all over the world. Early in the World War II, he opened it to twenty-one refugee relatives who where brought here from Austria at his own expense. As Dr. N. G. Alcock, one of Steindler's closest friends, puts it, "Refugees? Doc Steindler kept half of Austria during the war." The Steindlers keep a standing invitation at the university student affairs office for two students to share their home. The students are chosen at the discretion of the school.

Arthur Steindler was born in Vienna, Austria, June 22, 1878, to Leopold Steindler and Caroline Goldberg Steindler. He attended primary and secondary schools in Vienna and Bohemia. From 1896 to 1898, he was enrolled at the University of Prague. He received an M.D. degree from the University of Vienna in 1902.

"I wanted to study law at Vienna, so my father
(who was a lawyer) sent me to study medicine in Prague."

The Steindler family for generations had had an academic and professional history. When young Arthur showed promise in music, he was encouraged by his family and attended the best conservatories in Austria.

"I wanted to study law at Vienna," he explains, "so my father (who was a lawyer) sent me to study medicine in Prague."

As a young doctor practicing in a Vienna hospital, Steindler was distressed by political tensions which had started to spread over Europe. He remembers his own country as a land gravitating toward privilege and preference in which there became less and less opportunity for the working man. Deciding that nothing but aggression could come out of the politics of the government, he emigrated to America in 1907.

The fact that he had previously made a thorough study of English and Spanish, the two languages which he believed would be most useful to him in the New World, demonstrates the Steindler outlook in which there is no past, the present takes care of itself and all efforts are expended toward the future.

After holding two assistantships, one at the Home for Crippled Children in Chicago and the other at the Rush Medical College, he came to Drake University, Des Moines, as a full professor. It was during his residency there that he commuted to Iowa City twice weekly to visit patients and to deliver lectures in the state University college of medicine. In 1913 he accepted a professorship, later established a separate department of orthopedics and became its head in 1925.

When Dr. Steindler came to Iowa City, the University was raw and the future of its college of medicine uncertain. It was, in part, by virtue of his coming that the American Medical Association accredited the college. His 33-year career, terminating with retirement this June, encompasses the full development of University hospitals and the college of medicine, both physically and in the academic sense.

"Liberty and health!"
he said. "All other things in life
are trivialities."

That first "golden decade" of Steindler's tenure here meant big things. Helping engineer through the state legislature a bill opening university facilities to indigent patients was Steindler's first pet extracurricular project. Its passage made possible the present hospital's treatment and teaching systems. He was still only thirty-six years old. In the year 1914, two momentous things happened in the life of the young surgeon. He married Louise Junk of Waterloo and acquired United States citizenship. Citizenship to Dr. Steindler is synonymous with liberty, and to him liberty is a synonym of work.

"Liberty and health!" he said. "All other things in life are trivialities."

Arthur Steindler loves work, but he is not a machine. At his present age, 71, it is safe to say that he works as hard, or harder, than anyone treading the University campus. People wonder where he gets his energy for so much work. He does not work with the calm acceptance of labor as a human function—something to which man has been condemned and can never escape—he works with the emotional intensity of an overzealous graduate student who is aware constantly that for him there is still a lot to learn and much to be accomplished.

Steindler arises each morning at 5:30, takes a cold bath and goes for a brisk walk of a mile or two before breakfast. At 7 o'clock he is driven to Mercy hospital, where he intends to carry on his practice after retirement from the University. Here he sees private patients and performs surgery. By 8 a.m. he is at his desk in Children's hospital. During the morning he may perform more surgery. He makes the rounds of the wards, instructing as he goes the young doctors who accompany him and are eager for his advice. In the afternoon, he sees private patients, delivers lectures, holds consultations and seminars. By 5:30, the time he usually leaves his office to go home, patients are still waiting on the benches in the corridor.

"Why don't you take off at 4:30 once in a while and get out for a few rounds of golf?" a friend suggested.

"Get out of here at 4:30 with all those people waiting to see me? Impossible!"

Arthur Steindler has been criticized for lacking the very thing which keeps him from being a machine and allows him to preserve his artistic genius. That one thing is organization. He cares not a whit about organization, and to the more plodding minds who would curb him in this respect, his only answer is that he gets things done. Several times, his administration has been set up for him, but it has never functioned for long. He is no lover of methodology, pedantry or any other form of living that stamps out the creativity of the man within it. If he were to elaborate further on his belief that every man must have freedom to work, he would also add that every man must have freedom of work. For a man of lesser ability, such a rejection of organization might prove disastrous. But for Steindler it works fine. He goes about things in his own way, and after 33 years, administrators have come to take a philosophical view of the matter:

"Well, that's just Steindler."

It is only fair to make clear here that the great surgeon does not eschew organization only to be difficult. His whole life shows direct concern on one hand and pragmatic acceptance on the other of the material things which are outside the scientific pursuit of medicine. Some of the favorite stories circulated about him concern his inability to drive a car. There are others who are happy to drive for him. He is not captivated by the mechanical operation of present-day gadgets. He is not the kind of man whom you will find fixing a clock or tinkering with this wife's vacuum cleaner. For all these things he has a purely sensible, a purely pragmatic interest. They fit nicely into a world where there is a division of labor; where there are engineers, mechanics, electricians and lawyers as well as doctors.

He has never been in
his own basement.

In his home, Dr. Steindler does not bother himself with the so-called husbandly duties of repair and maintenance. He has never been in his own basement. He will not replace an upturned stone in his back lot garden, neither will he trim a bush nor touch a bramble. He is terrified by the thought that he might suffer an infection and be unable to carry on his surgery. Yet the Steindler home has a very special function in his life. Every nook and cranny of it has a bookcase, and in every bookcase there is a dictionary. He is forever going about the house with a dictionary in his hand, checking himself when his thinking lapses into German or one of the other languages with which he is so familiar. He is profoundly happy, and at times expresses a childish wonder when he thinks about the fact that he owns property. In Europe, the Steindlers lived comfortably in an apartment. They lived modestly then, as they do now. Last year Dr. Steindler had a Greek inscription placed above the front doorway of his home. Taken from one of his favorite authors, Horace, it reads:

"This corner of earth is dearer to me than all others."

Horace and Abraham Lincoln share Dr. Steindler's critical and profound respect. Horace because he refused to write the history of the Caesars, and Lincoln for his statesmanship which preserved the Union, and for his great gift of intellect and humility.

Dr. Steindler, in his simplicity and human understanding, is of the Lincoln character. He has a tremendous capacity for sympathy, which generates confidence in his patients, and a high personal regard in his colleagues. Yet he has something beyond sympathy with people's misfortunes. He has an empathetic personality which feels not only with others but into them. The doctor's highly delicate sensitivity is brought out in an anecdote which is told by Dr. R. W. Newman, present acting head of the department of orthopedics and for many years Dr. Steindler's assistant. Dr. Newman once killed a black wasp which had come to rest on Steindler's arm and was reprimanded for the action.

"Do you know," he turned to his assistant, "I have never consciously killed anything in my life."

Steindler was appalled by the story that he cut down a tree in his driveway because he couldn't drive around.

"There are three old trees (elms) on the property," Mrs. Steindler explained, "and the only reason they are alive at all is because the doctor has had tree surgeons 'sitting up with them' for these past several years. He wouldn't hear of any of them being destroyed."

His ability to raise himself above the
petty threats to comfort and security, which bother ordinary people, are a source of wonderment and example to his friends.

Steindler's greatest single attribute is probably his natural instinct for a rich life. He possesses the powers that go to building up human life, such as sane conduct, intellect and vast knowledge. He has a natural instinct for beauty, social intercourse and good manners. His ability to raise himself above the petty threats to comfort and security, which bother ordinary people, are a source of wonderment and example to his friends. As the saying goes, you can talk a kind man out of his shirt. With equal effort, a sincere man can talk Dr. Steindler out of his whole wardrobe.

During one of the coldest of winter seasons in recent years, Dr. Steindler noted a young student who continued to come to the hospital for his part-time job in a light suede jacket. Recalling the bitter cold of the morning, and the inadequate clothing of the young fellow, the doctor hurriedly sent a check to the boy's department head with instructions that it be applied toward buying him a warm overcoat.

Infinite generosity has become such a habit with him that he has at times extended it to the unworthy rather than violate it. There is nothing that pleases the doctor more than ambition and intelligence in a young man. By the same token, he is saddened by dim faculties and slothfulness on the part of an old one. Perhaps it is because he has always been a functional man in society, a giver rather than a receiver. He periodically asks himself if he is doing enough; he spurs himself mentally and accomplishes more than he thinks he can.

Matthew Arnold in his essay on Literature and Science said: "All knowledge is interesting to a wise man." That precept pretty well sums up Steindler's view of things. The things in which he is interested are not for the instant, but for all time. He has always dealt in the overall picture rather than the isolated instance. His position in orthopedic surgery is one of the scientist rather than the surgeon. Although he is the discoverer of many new operative techniques, he has roamed through the entire field of orthopedics. He is an expert diagnostician, a man who can look at a case and recommend the type of surgery and how far it can be carried toward improvement of the patient.

His greatest book (the fourth of seven) bears out his desire to see and interpret the whole. It is entitled Mechanics of Normal and Pathological Locomotion of Man. Into it went more than two years of special study in engineering and mathematics in addition to a lifetime knowledge in orthopedics. He wanted to show and interpret what he knew about locomotion and handicaps in fundamental terms. This book is found by practicing orthopedic surgeons to be so deep that they have taken recourse in reference texts while reading its pages.

Dr. Steindler is now engaged in preparing his lectures for publication; and working on them has become a part of his after-dinner routine. It has been his life-long habit to write, study or read until 11:30 each night. Besides his many books, he has published 121 articles and monographs, all of them prepared after work hours.

Among his many duties which he performs daily, Dr. Steindler regards his teaching as most important. It is here that he feels he can make his greatest contribution to humanity. He is no "pat" lecturer. He reviews his notes thoroughly before meeting each class, not statically to refresh his memory, but to be sure they contain every bit of significant current data on the subject.

He has always regretted that he could see only a small fraction of the people who needed his help. Physical limitations have forced these circumstances. One of the last moves he made as head of the department of orthopedics was development of a traveling clinic which, during each year, travels to cities of Iowa. In its first season Dr. Steindler went out into the state with the traveling clinic and himself carried on the hours and hours of grueling labor that went into patient interviews, examinations and the taking of case histories. He would have made the same circuit again this year had not his assistant, Dr. Newman, prevailed upon him to work in the field. Even then, all examinations and case histories were cleared through Steindler and his staff at the University hospital. Recommendations were made and sent to the local doctors nearest the patient's home. This bringing of the expert to the home town will continue in the years to come.

It is a clear case of the mountain coming to Mohammed.

For more than three decades Dr. Steindler's world has been Children's hospital. The dingy walls of the corridors is of his own making. Every time he sees an improvement being made—painting, remodeling (anything but enlarging the building, in which case he could accommodate more patients), he always remarks that it is a shame they do not use these funds for patients. Consequently, he almost never makes recommendations for superficial repairs.

The doctor's gait has slowed, but there is one aspect of his appearance which will never change. That is the forward thrust of his neck and head—an idiosyncracy in carriage which makes him look as though he were trying consciously to aid the passage of time and progress. He has only impatience for the physical incapacities of human nature which slow down man in his march forward. Steindler would run through half a dozen lifetimes if it were possible. As it is, he extracts the most good he can from the one he has.

In 1983, the former Children's Hospital Building of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics was named after Dr. Steindler.