Thursday, August 13, 2009

Remembering Bill Laidlaw

There’s one approach to history that focuses on “great men,” and a contrasting understanding that says “trends and movements” are the real hinge of historical developments.

When people look back in years to come on this era for the Ohio Historical Society, they will surely see the broader influences of significant economic shifts in the state, with budget cuts defining much of the story, but they will unavoidably notice a particular person who stands at the heart of the turmoil and trials of this time – William Laidlaw.

Bill may not have liked the label “great man,” but his influence has been great, even if in humble and unassuming ways. Bill’s greatness has been in good humor, by bringing a cheerful spirit and constructive attitude into tense meetings and challenging situations, with a smile and a raised eyebrow where others might raise voices and offer a scowl. That was not a look you saw often, if ever, from Bill Laidlaw.

With a background in management and academia, he chose to take on a radically new challenge at a point in his life and career when many men simply look for a capstone achievement, one ideally well within their comfort zone. Instead, Bill took on the task of helping reformulate a not-quite-state-agency that was already known to be in not-quite-good if not outright difficult financial straits. Not long after he got his pencils sharpened on his desk blotter, the state budget forecasts turned dark and got progressively stormier than anyone could have forecast -- but Bill stayed the happy warrior and gracious civic servant right through his latest rounds of statehouse lobbying and public advocacy, last May and June.

And as he worked with his staff to shape the statewide picture as much as circumstances allowed, he continued to communicate with individuals and families about the joys of history and the excitement of sharing knowledge. Here in Licking County, a mom down the street came by this afternoon to ask if it was true what she heard “about that smiling nice man with the white hair,” who had e-mailed her back after a chance encounter about places she and her four children would find interesting and accessible. She couldn’t quite recall his name, but she knew that “the boss” of the state historical society had taken the time to do personally what so many in his position would have quietly handed off to a junior staffer. Plus, she remembered the smile, and the interest in her kids.

In the next few months and years, historic sites and cultural landmarks in Ohio will be getting formal recognition from the United Nations of their unique significance, their greatness in a global context. Bill Laidlaw would be quick to point out that the major work, the detail work, the groundwork was all done by others. But for those of us who will be honored to see that day come when Ohio has sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, we will all know when that day comes that it was the cheerfully persistent leadership that Bill brought to OHS that was crucial to making it happen.

Was Bill Laidlaw a great man, or the right man at a time when greatness was called for? The right answer, many of us suspect, is “both.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Re: Faith Works 8-15

Faith Works 8-15-09
Jeff Gill
When Ethics Meet Policy, "First, Do No Harm"
There is a medical saying that often is attributed to the Hippocratic Oath, which in Latin is "Primum non nocere" or more familiarly, "First, do no harm."
Going back 2400 years, the Hippocratic Oath is one of the very oldest professional ethics, and a version of it is still said by new doctors. The original version is theological in that it is sworn in the name of Greek gods, mainly Apollo and the lesser divinities Asclepius and his daughters Hygieia and Panacea (the staff of Asclepius is the symbol of medicine still, the snake entwined around a rod).
In fact, the Hippocratic Oath doesn't quite have this phrase, although "never do harm" is close. You might even notice that the once common phrase "primum non nocere" is Latin, and Hippocrates was a Greek physician.
The root source of "First, do no harm" seems to come from a Latin translation of one of Hippcrates' books, called "On Epidemics." The line in question goes "As to diseases, make a habit of two things--to help, or at least to do no harm." It's also possible that the Roman physician and pharmacist Galen started the aphorism, but he may have been loosely quoting Hippocrates himself.
It's good advice and a solid basis for ethical thinking, whoever came up with it first. If ethics, especially practical or "lived" ethics is the process of applying basic principles of what is good to what one must do, "first, do no harm" is not a bad place to start. It acknowledges that for all one's skill, knowledge, and training, you still have limits – if you have reason to believe that taking an action you have in mind is more likely to do harm, more than the slight possibility to do good that motivates you to go forward, then stop.
In working with disease and injury and sickness there will always be risk, but an ethical doctor (so says this principle) will not take a risk simply on the off chance that it might help. If the alternative to risk is death or serious injury, then you take your chance, but still with humility and an understanding of your own limitations. A gangrenous leg is a terrible thing to lose, but dying of gangrene is worse, so a surgeon does "no harm" in amputating the limb to save the life.
Much of the anxiety and outright fear around the current debate over health care and a national policy or plan goes back to how one calculates the essential ethic of "first, do no harm." Many critics and political leaders argue that we have a case of gangrene on our hands, with a limb of excessively bloating costs and expectations endangering the whole body. Radical surgery, they say, is not harmful, but necessary.
Other pundits and polemicists say not so, there is an injury and even a systematic illness here, but lesser treatments targeted at the specific cause of what's wrong with the body politic are what's called for. Some even claim that once under the anesthetic and the knife the patient will lose not one but two legs out of an excess of caution or extremes of zeal to cure the problem.
No one is saying that our current health care situation is just an ingrown toenail, but somewhere between that and gangrene is the diagnosis, and then the debate over the proper cure. And over it all hangs the words of . . . well, maybe Hippocrates: "First, do no harm."
How does your religious faith inform your ethical stance on personal treatment, and public policy? I suspect this subject will be discussed around more than a few coffeepots before and after worship this Sunday around Licking County.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he is not a doctor and has never played one on TV.  Send him your diagnoses at or follow Knapsack