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Good Old Days: Life of Thelma Wenzel

Published by U.S. Legacies: March 2005

"You know, when you look under the microscope like I did, everything was magnified 2,000 times. I never knew what I was going to find."

What Thelma Wenzel seems to have found is a life full of richness and surprises, not unlike those she found under the lens of her microscope during her 50 years in medical technology. Like the microorganisms she studied over the years, Miss Wenzel has always had a love for life and beauty. At 88, she still paints, gardens, attends religious meetings, and entertains at her home in Park Hill in North Little Rock.

Born in St. Louis in 1896, she is the daughter of the late Frank Herman Wenzel (of Wenzel camping equipment) and Louisa Meyer Wenzel.

"I didn't know at the time," she said during a recent interview, "but I was a teacher's pet in school. They always wanted me to perform in the recitals and plays." Miss Wenzel suddenly remembered a poem and stood up eagerly to recite,

"I love the name of Washington,

I love my country, too,

I love the flag,

The dear old flag,

Of red and white and blue."

She also recalls a tornado hitting St. Louis in 1896. "It was on Dolman Street," she said. "Mama knew that the tornado was upon us. She had a lamp in one arm and me, an infant at the time, in the other. Our servant girl had my brother, Frank, and my sister, Sophie. Everybody was trying to get out of the house.

"Each room we entered, the way through would be blown away as soon as we left it. We would just barely get through a room before it was gone. Mama was trying to keep me against her chest because of the vacuum being created by the tornado. She was afraid that I would smother."

Thelma Wenzel began her work in medical technology at the age of 17. Her family's physician, Dr. C.S. Pettus, had been named to find "girls" to work in the labs of a new hospital _ Vanderbilt University Medical School.

"I didn't see any future for myself as a teen-ager," Miss Wenzel said. "I knew I didn't want to be a clerk or a stenographer so I helped my mother at home. I was absolutely miserable. I got fatter and fatter on Mama's homemade brown bread. No young girl can be happy when she's fat. Well, Dr. Pettus helped me by putting me on a diet. Besides helping me with my personal problem, he also got me a job."

She spent four years training for her chosen career, three of which were to obtain her nursing degree, and an additional year of medical technology training at Watkins University.

"I was hired for my very first job at Vanderbilt University, and was in charge of the laboratory at the age of 21. Think of it!" she exclaimed.

And it was, indeed, something to think about, as subsequent years brought her professional recognition she had never thought possible.

Her findings were published, among other places in the Archives of Pathology, the American Journal of Medical Sciences, and the American Medical Association's Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Oh yes, I would discover things. It was so exciting. They were things that had never been reported before. It was a thrill!" she said.

One such discovery was made in 1929. "At Christmas one year, I came back to find a book on my desk. I thought `what a strange Christmas present - a textbook!' I opened it up and there was my method all printed up."

The "method" to which she referred to was named the Wenzel anaerobic method, and has been used for decades to culture specimens in the laboratory. The word "anaerobic" means "grown without air,"a very important element in clinical lab work of the time.

Miss Wenzel described her landmark discovery. "They used to use tall test tubes to grow specimens," Miss Wenzel continued. "It was hard to get to the bottom of them, so I just put the material on a Petrie dish. My secret was pouring melted petroleum jelly over the top so the bacteria had no air. I would chill the dish and then, when I checked the specimen underneath, the layer of petroleum jelly would slip right off." The Wenzel anaerobic method caught the attention of physicians, technicians and researchers all over the United States.

However, she was to go on to realize even more discoveries. "A little baby had become infected with a mysterious disease and died soon after," she said. "I was able to obtain some of the baby's blood, and kept it, using my anaerobic method and the incubator to test the blood samples. But, after two weeks in the incubator, nothing grew. I thought, `That baby had a high fever and I'm not going to throw this away.' There is more to this," she explained.

After this incident, she took the three previously tested petrie dishes out of the incubator, leaving them at room temperature. Her supervising physician, Dr. Roy Avery, came into the lab and asked her if she was working on anything interesting. She said, "Well, I do have something, but I don't know what it is. I never saw anything like it in my life." At room temperature, the samples had developed peculiar flower-like forms under the microscope.

"Old Dr. Avery was so excited," Miss Wenzel said. "My God, woman!" he said. "Where'd you get that stuff? This has never been isolated before from human blood! You have a very rare organism."

The organism came to be called histoplasma capsulatus, and those exposed to these air borne germs have what is now called histoplasmosis. That same organism was present in the feces of the dog with which the previously described baby had been playing shortly before getting sick.

Not long after her finding, Miss Wenzel visited her brother, who resided in Los Angeles, California, at the time. "While I was there, I was asked if I wanted to visit the Los Angeles County Hospital, which had just opened at the time," she explained.

"A doctor asked me if I was the Miss Wenzel who had made a discovery in Nashville, Tennessee. When he learned that I was indeed, the same one, he took the time to show me around the laboratories there and he even offered me a job. But, I just loved it so much at Vanderbilt that I turned him down."

"But just imagine," she continued, "A little ol'nothing like me discovering something like that!"

After that heyday, however, she saw her work go largely unappreciated. Her financial situation during the Depression years forced her to take two jobs.

Later years also proved disappointing. "One time," she said, "I came in to work and a young doctor who had a research job at Vanderbilt wanted to talk to me. He informed me that he was now going to be in charge of the laboratory that I had supervised. Because it was World War II, my regular supervisor, Dr. Morgan, was looking after all the VA hospitals and labs overseas.

"I said, `I think it will be a very good idea for a doctor to be the head of the lab, because they can talk all that medical stuff.' But then he said, "You don't understand, Miss Wenzel. You won't be here."

She decided to leave her long-time job right then, and in such haste that she even left her microscope behind.

Besides the hazards of politics during her years as a medical technologist, Miss Wenzel also was constantly exposed to serious diseases. "I worked with syphilis samples from patients a lot. It was a wonder that I didn't contract it," she said, "but, I was always very careful to wear gloves, and not prick myself with infected needles."

After resigning from Vanderbilt, she took a full-time job with the VA hospital. She devoted more of her time to her family, especially to her brother, Armand, and to her second love—painting, as well as to the Baha'i Faith, which she had become a member of in 1957.

Miss Wenzel had enrolled in her first art class at the age of 13 because she wanted a scholarship. "The teacher put a white lily in a clear vase and asked me to draw and paint it without making many pencil marks. I looked at this task thinking, `I have a white paper and that's a white flower. I don't know how to make that show up.'

"The teacher showed me how to use a little blue and gray for the shadows where the petals came together. So, I learned how to paint a white lily on white paper," Miss Wenzel laughed.

It was her first and only formal art lesson.

Since that time, this multi-talented woman has created dozens of original oils and acrylic paintings, most of them autobiographical. One of them depicts her as a little girl at the turn of the last century walking with her father down a fashionable St. Louis street. "I adored Papa," she said. "To me, he was just about perfect. He was the real head of the household."

Asked why her father had not gone into the famous Wenzel family tent and camping business, she simply said, "My father, Frank, had a chance to go into business, all right. His uncle, Herman Wenzel, was always trying to talk my papa into doing this. But Papa was an artist. He wasn't going to get into that kind of work and throw his life away just to make a lot of money. But he always managed to make a good salary from his job as a lithographer," she said.

Other autobiographical paintings include her interpretation of slave days in the old South, of which she considers herself a part, having been raised in Charleston, South Carolina. Still other renderings are of still life flowers, portraits, and landscapes.

One of the portraits is of her great-great grandfather, Baron Heinrich Karl Friedrich Von Stein, called the `Secret Kaiser' of Germany, and his wife, the Countess Wilhelmina. Among other accomplishments, Baron von Stein eliminated serfdom in Prussia shortly before the Napoleonic invasion. He also secretly opposed Napoleon during his reign, leading to his now well-known title.

Miss Wenzel followed her fascination with these ancestors by visiting two of the baron's castles at Nassau and Cappenburg, in western Germany, in 1962.

Through von Stein's wife, the Wenzel family can trace its roots to King George II of England. "My grandmother would tell us stories of Baron von Stein when I was a child. When I think of him and my family's connection, it seems like a fairy tale that the children tell," she said. " I think it is just thrilling."

She related another childhood experience: " I was learning long division in school. One day I was trying to reason out the way to do a particular problem. I finally got the answer, but my teacher came over and said, "Thelma Wenzel! You cheated! You must have turned to the back of the book and gotten the answer."

"Well, I had not cheated! It would never have occurred to me to do such a thing. My mother brought me up to be honorable," she said. "You weren't anything unless you were truthful and honest. That was one thing that I had to be," she concluded.

Lisa Armstrong, is a freelance writer from Arkansas. This article was originally printed in the Midweek section of the Arkansas Democrat, November 14, 1984.

A Life Dedicated to Medical Science

By Lisa Herndon Armstrong

Thelma Wenzel