Dad’s life-saving friend



In advance of Father’s Day Sunday, here’s a story about my dad and the friend who saved his life.

When Dad was a lad in Whittemore, one of his best friends was Lloyd Roth. After graduation from Presentation Academy there, Dad went to Emmetsburg Junior College for two years until the Depression ended his college hopes and sent him to work as a gandy dancer for the railroad. Meanwhile, Lloyd earned medical and pharmacy degrees, plus a doctorate in chemistry, and became a renowned medical researcher at the University of Chicago.

With the onset of World War II, Dad enlisted in the Army Air Force, rose to the rank of captain and served in North Africa and Italy.

Lloyd Roth also entered the Army, assigned to America’s most secret wartime endeavor, the Manhattan Project, where our nation’s top scientists worked on developing the atomic bomb in Chicago and Los Alamos, N.M.

During his military service in Italy, Dad contracted tuberculosis, which was rampant in that war-torn country. But the symptoms didn’t show up for several years, and when they did appear, they were misdiagnosed by local doctors.

In 1959 the TB was finally diagnosed correctly and Dad was admitted to the Veterans Administration hospital in Madison, Wis., which specialized in treatment of TB. He was there for a year and a half, leaving Mom to raise six kids by herself back here in Storm Lake. In that time we saw Dad just once, when we traveled to Madison to talk with him for a few minutes in a large otherwise empty conference room. He stood in his pajamas and robe at one end wearing a face mask, and we stood about 30 feet away and talked with him for maybe 15 minutes. My memory is a little imprecise; it was 60 years ago and I was only 10.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we learned years later that Dad’s disease had progressed so far that doctors didn’t think he would leave the hospital alive.

But aided by antibiotics, extensive lung surgery and, most importantly, an experimental drug treatment, Dad recovered and after a year and a half returned home to Storm Lake.

Remarkably, the experimental drug that saved Dad’s life was developed by his boyhood friend from Whittemore, Lloyd Roth.

While working with uranium for the atom bomb, Roth discovered that radioactive isotopes could help make drugs effective in treating tuberculosis. His research led to drugs that probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, and one of the first was his boyhood friend Pat Cullen.

Dr. Roth became world-renowned as chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Chicago, where he was also on the medical school staff, but he made special efforts over the years to come to Storm Lake to visit our family. It was always a big deal when he would stay with us for a few days. Mostly he visited with Dad, of course, but we kids loved pestering him with questions and he never tired of answering them. He had a knack for taking the most complex scientific ideas and making them understandable to a bunch of children who didn’t know science from second base. Some of the stuff he worked on was secret, but besides his groundbreaking work with tuberculosis, he had many other discoveries. One was what he called the “non-glug jug” — containers with hollow handles that allow fluids to flow freely without splashing. We use millions of them today to pour everything from milk to paint to motor oil.

As for the atom bomb, Roth was just one of thousands who worked on it after being called to duty by his nation in wartime. Both he and Dad agreed that while it was awful and neither of them envied President Truman’s decision to deploy it, its use brought a quick end to the war and probably saved the lives of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers and sailors as well as many more Japanese soldiers and civilians who would have died in an invasion of Japan. The 75th anniversary of that ominous situation is coming up on Aug. 6.

It wasn’t TB but cancer that ended Dad’s life in 1974 at the age of 61, but because of Lloyd Roth’s life-saving drug discoveries, we could celebrate Father’s Day with our Dad for 14 more years. Loyd Roth passed away in 1986. The last time we saw him was at Dad’s funeral.

Happy Father’s Day to all dads.

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