Addendum to Papers of Alan Geoffrey Cock

In Memoriam: Adolf Josef Staffe Obituary of AGC's Austrian father-in-law

Euthanasia Aided by a Relative Concerning the death of AGC's first wife.

In Memoriam: Adolf Josef Staffe

Commemoration by Wilhelm Liebscher

Translated from Der fortschrittliche Landwirt. 8 (1958): 13 (125)

by Joan Gladwell, Queen's University, Ontario, November 2008

Tenured Professor Dr. A.J. Staffe died March 9, 1958 and was accompanied by his friends and family members to his final resting place on March 15.

Staffe was born in 1888 as the son of a prominent farmer in the Kühländchen ("pasturelands") of Moravia, the homeland of genetics researcher [Gregor Johann] Mendel [i.e., the father of modern genetics]. He attended secondary school in the then German city of Friedek [now Frýdek-Mistek (Ger. Friedeck-Mistek) on the border of Moravia and Silesia in the eastern Czech Republic] and graduated from the Hochschule für Bodenkultur (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences) in Vienna. Dr. Adametz, instructor of animal husbandry at that time, recognized Staffe’s extraordinary talent very early on and soon asked him to do scientific research. After receiving his doctorate, Staffe worked at what was known during his time as the Hofgestüt Lippizza (Lippizaner stud farm). After the First World War he was promoted to associate professor of animal husbandry.

For all intents and purposes a farmer, Staffe was entrusted with the administration of the then Bathyanihof and Seidelhof leaseholds in Trautmannsdorf an der Leitha as well as in Weiden am See, which kept him very busy. Despite his heavy workload, his thirst for knowledge gave him no rest. He dedicated many nights to deepening and broadening his knowledge, which consisted at this time in exhaustive bacteriological studies with Dr. Zikes.

The high esteem in which Dr. Adametz held his young associate professor is probably best summed up by the fact that he charged Staffe with conducting lectures and exams on animal husbandry during his absences that often lasted for months at a time.

After the death of Professor Winkler, Staffe was entrusted with giving lectures on dairy farming and appointed full professor at the Hochschule für Bodenkultur. From 1940 to 1943, Austria’s own "son from the Kühländchen" was invested with the highest academic honour by becoming principal of the same Viennese institution. In the wake of the war, however, he was unable to pursue his wide-ranging plans to build an institute of higher learning with its various departments, as well as an important research farm.

While Staffe’s academic work came to an abrupt end in 1945, his unceasing research did not. First of all, he received a friendly reception in Switzerland, where several scientific projects saw the light of day. He then made his way to Columbia as an FAO (food and agriculture) expert, with the task of putting proposals for the advancement of animal husbandry and breeding into practice. For weeks on end, Staffe travelled by plane, automobile, and often on horseback through the Andean Highlands and through the vast expanses of a country nearly fourteen times larger than Austria. He soon became known as an expert on Columbia. Staffe’s exhaustive preliminary work allowed him to put together projects with uncompromising attention to detail. His work earned him high recognition and he was one of the most respected and valued men in the country. Despite his once forced departure from the Hochschule für Bodenkultur in Vienna that had caused him so much suffering, his life had become richly rewarding.

[Photo: Albin Kobe]

In addition to three books, Staffe published over 100 scientific articles in which he dealt with questions of genetics, environmental effects, and problems relating to dairy farming and bacteriology. Staffe was profoundly versatile and a man of depth. Everything he undertook was handled with uncommon energy and thoroughness.

During his time in academia, Staffe taught some 800 students. He was a father-like figure to all and available at a moment’s notice. Few of his students will still be aware – and may they kindly take note – that it was Staffe who, very early on, observed how the penicillium fungus arrested the growth of bacteria. While he demonstrated this occurrence to his students each semester, he was hindered by the lack of resources and assistants in conducting further research that ultimately allowed the British [Scottish!] [Sir Alexander] Flemming [sic] to succeed at discovering penicillin.

With the passing of Staffe, who was also a corresponding member of the Academy of Science in Vienna, a large and distinguished scientist of international renown has left us. But his signature qualities continue to hold sway. He was noble-minded and kind-hearted, and his helpfulness and loyalty went without saying. He will be sorely missed by his family and friends.

The following article was written by AGC many years after the event. It is believed that he submitted it to The New Statesman, which declined to publish. It is believed that a copy was placed in the archives of The Euthanasia Society, now known as The Dignity in Dying Society. It is placed here with the permission of the daughters of Elsi and Alan.

EUTHANASIA AIDED BY A RELATIVE

THE WILLIAM TELL FACTOR

By Alan G. Cock

Were I the son of William Tell, I should most fervently hope, for my father's sake as well as for my own safety, that some other expert marksman - anybody but my own father - should be ordered to shoot the apple from my head. Compared with voluntary euthanasia, the roles of life and death are reversed, but the analogy remains valid.

Early in 1961 (before the 1961 Suicide Act came into force) my first wife, aged 39, died in a London cancer hospital. She had terminal cancer of the colon, and had taken (with my foreknowledge) an overdose of barbiturates. The main point of telling the story now is that it illustrates, with especial poignancy, a very common and serious practical difficulty. Although suicides done "on impulse" are often fully "solo" efforts, it is rare for somebody to plan and carry out an act of euthanasia entirely on their own. At the very least they are likely to have a confidant and, much more often, somebody who gives them more or less active help and support. Ideally this would be a medical practitioner, but in the present state of the law it is often difficult to find a doctor willing to help in this way (thirty years ago it was even more difficult). One is, after all, asking the doctor to commit a criminal offence and to put their own career at some risk - a lot to ask. So the role of helper usually falls to a close relative - spouse, parent, sibling or child. There are several dangers associated with acting as a lay helper.

Clearly, there is the risk of being eventually prosecuted - a traumatic experience, even if one is not convicted. The lack of sufficient medical expertise is perhaps not so serious a drawback as is commonly supposed. (I am a biologist, and had used barbiturate drugs as an animal anaesthetic many times. So, as far as sheer technical knowhow goes, I was much better equipped for my role than the average layperson. Yet our 'conspiracy' very nearly failed, and hovered on the brink for over 24 hours.) By far the greatest danger comes from the close emotional involvement of the helper with the patient; helping a loved one to end their life is not easy, and one is continually in a state of being "pulled both ways". The need for secrecy adds a further layer of emotional stress. In such emotionally fraught situations one's judgement tends to be seriously impaired, leading to mistakes or oversights that would rarely be made in an emotionally neutral context.

We should take heed of what doctors do when there is even moderately serious illness in their own family. Rather than treat the case themselves, a colleague is called in. It is not that the doctor reckons his colleague more skilled: he simply knows that the colleague, from his more detached position, is better placed to make a calm and balanced judgement.

Over the past 3 1/2 years my wife had had two major and two minor surgical operations, and by the end of 1960 we knew we had reached the end of the surgical road. At one point I discovered, to my great disgust, that her surgeon and our GP had been conspiring to deceive us (me, mainly) as to her condition: the surgeon wrote to the GP the precise opposite of the reassuring message he had given BO. (I know, because I later saw their correspondence. ) Fortunately, labelled [sic] by instinct, I insisted (against rather strong opposition from the GP) on calling in a second opinion. As a result, she had a further operation which (although only palliative - not all the cancer could be removed) was enormously beneficial. It gave her an extra 18 months of very worth-while life, most of it comparatively free of pain. Although I do not think that - as things turned out - that episode of medical deception had much effect on the course of my wife's illness, it did, naturally, seriously impair our degree of trust in the medical profession, and leave us both with a stronger sense of being isolated (hardly conducive to rational judgement).

Six months before she died, my wife told me that she had accumulated over 50 barbiturate capsules (prescribed as sleeping-pills - she had been taking them only on 'bad' nights). We went together over all the usual issues and emotions associated with euthanasia, and I could not find it in me to try to dissuade her. From me she wanted just two promises: that I would do nothing to thwart her plan, and that I would verify that she had enough of the drug for her purpose. (According to the British Pharmacoepia, she had over ten times the lethal dose - a reassuringly large margin. ) Her intention was to keep the drug always by her, and not to tell me in advance when she decided to take it. That lifted one burden from me: in the event of a farewell meeting ("I shall take the drug tonight") I know I should have felt an overwhelming pressure to persuade her to postpone it for a few days, and then for a few days more ... .

In the first days of 1961, by a prearranged plan, I took our two daughters, aged 6 and 8, to stay with their aunt and cousins in Austria (my wife's native country). Besides affording them some shelter from what was to come (a new and exciting environment can work wonders), it left us free to move away from Edinburgh. We had been offered the chance of having chemotherapy in London. Neither of us saw that as amounting to other than clutching at straws. (For technical reasons, the various anti-cancer drugs are far more effective against rapidly growing kinds of cancer than against the slowly growing type that my wife had.) Indeed, our London doctor was admirably frank, saying only that some of the newer drugs had shown "a degree of promise" with that type of cancer. In that situation, even clutching at straws seems preferable to waiting passively for the inevitable. So we moved to London, where she was placed in a two-bedded side-ward. In retrospect, the benefit of moving to London lay far more in the better standard of care and much quieter atmosphere there, than in any specific medical treatment.

A week later, I returned to Edinburgh for a couple of days, partly to ensure that our house was properly shut down and secured, but also to collect various papers and books from my place of work. Colleagues had urged on me some very sound advice. Don't, they said, let life became just a sequence of hospital visits; take down some work to do, and that will help divert your mind. To that end, I had already arranged to borrow a room to work in at London University. My car broke down during the journey back from Edinburgh, so I had to leave it at a Yorkshire garage, for a reconditioned engine to be fitted, and complete my journey by train.

Three weeks after our first arrival in London, I had still not begun any work: two hospital visits each day and a lot of time spent in travelling (I was staying with my father in the outer suburbs) did not leave much time to settle down to work. By wife's condition had seemed fairly stable over the past few days, so I decided to tell her that afternoon that I would skip that evening's visiting session and do some work at the university. It was less the value of any little work I might get done than that the attempt at "business as usual" would help the morale of both of us.

That afternoon there was very bad news. The doctors had decided to discontinue chemotherapy: the treatment was destroying too many of her blood cells. They wanted me to arrange, within about a week, for her transfer to a nursing home - probably one of the Marie Curie Memorial Homes. Despite the news, I persisted in my original plan of not coming again in the evening. As I left, saying "see you tomorrow afternoon", I had not the least idea that that would be the last time we should speak to each other.

Once outside the hospital, the impact of chemotherapy being stopped sunk more deeply into me. I felt too upset to concentrate on work, so I went to a cinema instead, in an attempt to relax. Early next morning, my father took a telephone call: as soon as he said it was from the hospital I knew what had. happened, and was amazed that I had not guessed that yesterday's news might trigger off her plan. They said that she had seemed normal the previous evening, but was found to be in a coma in the morning.

The journey across London took nearly two hours. I hardly expected to find her still alive, but alive she was, lying peacefully and breathing steadily, if rather slowly and shallowly. Her room-mate had, of course, been moved elsewhere. From my wife's handbag I took two empty bottles, and transferred them to my pocket for eventual disposal outside the hospital. One had contained the barbiturate; the other was a miniature of brandy. The brandy had been my idea - partly to make the draught more palatable, but also because alcohol strengthens the action of barbiturates. Somebody asked me to go along to see the doctors. There were two of them - a man and a woman, both quite young, and new to me. They said they suspected that my wife had taken an overdose of something. It would help to know which drug it was. Did I know anything which would throw light on that? I firmly denied any knowledge, but added emphatically that if I did know anything I certainly would not tell them. They knew her condition and prospects, I pointed out, and if she had taken something, she was fully aware of what she was doing. With all the passion I could mister, I begged them not to take any steps to resuscitate her.

There followed a long, embarrassed silence, ended by my leaving the room. I had not expected an explicit promise not to attempt resuscitation that would have implicated them in a criminal conspiracy. I had hoped for oblique assurances that they understood the situation (I am quite sure they grasped my message) and would not intervene. Perhaps a more experienced doctor would have found a more sympathetic and supportive way of handling this tricky situation.

Back at my wife's room, I found to my alarm a nurse at her bedside, syringe in hand. I put out my hand to restrain her, but she explained that she was intending only to take a blood sample. Realising that the syringe was indeed empty, I let her proceed. Then began a vigil that was to last 27 hours. For the first few hours I saw myself as being "on guard", lest the hospital take active steps towards resuscitation, though what I could or would have done in that event, I cannot imagine. It gradually became clear that the hospital was intending simply to let things take their "natural" course, but as that fear subsided another, deeper, alarm came to the fore. My wife had taken one of the quicker- acting barbiturates, which should have maximum effect within a few hours. Seeing that some 12 hours must have elapsed before I reached the hospital, that time was well past. What I had now to expect was that, as the effects of the drug wore off, she would slowly recover, and eventually regain consciousness.

Of course, there was part of me that did not want her to die just then, but the alternative seemed far more alarming. On recovery, she would be bound to have feelings of disillusionment and despair, of an intensity that I could only guess at. As for me, how could I face her, knowing that - somehow - I had failed her In her last and most important request? To organise another attempt would be extremely difficult: the hospital staff would now be alerted to the danger and, understandably, would see it as their duty to frustrate any attempt. Even obtaining a fresh supply of a suitable drug would be a formidable problem, though that would not have been quite so difficult back in Edinburgh. I did not spend quite all the time in her room: I made short trips outside for meals; I disposed of the bottles, bought a newspaper. Occasionally I went down to the hospital waiting-room, or paced along the corridors. These were tension-relieving stratagems - successful up to a point.

I did seriously consider telephoning the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, but decided that that would be unfair (to the Society) and rather pointless. The purpose of the Society is to campaign for reform of the law, not to offer help or support to those engaged in an Illegal act. I tried to phone a scientific colleague, but he was out. Probably I phoned my father, to explain my prolonged absence. The only constructively comforting conversation I had during all that time occurred during one of my wanderings along the corridors. I act [sic] my wife's room-mate. She told me not to worry or feel guilty: it had been the only possible way. They had talked together about it the previous evening, and she (the room-mate) was fully determined to do the same when her own time came. None of this directly addressed what was my chief worry by then (i.e. what should I do if my wife recovered?) but just to talk sympathetically and openly with somebody who knew the circumstances was immeasurably supportive.

Twice during the final hours my wife moved her head very slightly. This alarmed me, as it seemed a likely prelude to recovery - but nothing further happened. At this stage I did very seriously contemplate smothering her face in a pillow. The risk of detection would have been very slight, but I just could not do it (am I a coward?). Then her breathing became progressively slower and finally ceased; the vigil was over.

I went out to register her death, then to the university, where I phoned my father, who drove in to collect me. Mercifully, the next few days were frantically busy. We found a printer who would produce, at very short notice, cards announcing her death. The wording followed precisely what she had written in her address-book: "... no flowers, please - donations to the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation... ." Although the hospital must have had very serious doubts, they issued a "clean" death certificate, so that I was able to arrange for her remains to be cremated. I addressed and despatched all the cards, and went up to Yorkshire to collect ay car. The cremation I attended absolutely alone, following her wish. As soon as I could collect the ashes from the undertaker, I took a night trainto Austria. Breaking the news to our daughters was not a task I could delegate.

After a few days in Stiermark with my daughters, I went on to Vienna. There, my mother-ln-law and I quietly interred her ashes in her father's grave. That was in a Roman Catholic cemetery: a double irony, since suicide and cremation are both anathema to that church. The marginal dishonesty of the procedure did not seen to bother my mother-in-law – a devout Roman Catholic –  so I saw no cause for it to worry me, an agnostic, nor did I think fit to burden her conscience by explaining how her daughter had died. I returned to Edinburgh to pick up the threads of work, to rebuild a life, and to find a housekeeper. After six months, I went again to Austria to bring my daughters back home.

What went wrong? That is now hardly more than an academic question, but there are several plausible possibilities. Given the ten-fold excess over the nominal lethal dose, it seems highly unlikely that, purely as a result of age, the drug's potency could have declined to that extent. It is conceivable that the residuum of the anti-cancer drug she had been taking in some way interacted with the barbiturate, reducing its effect. Perhaps my wife had failed to swallow the whole amount; I am confident that her room-mate would have cleaned up any spillage, rinsed out the tumbler, etc. Perhaps an antidote had been administered before I reached the hospital. But I strongly suspect that the fault lay in something I did shortly before we left Edinburgh.

My wife had faced me with a disturbing question: "How, when it comes to the point, shall I manage to swallow 50 capsules?" Well, some people swallow pills or tablets very easily, while others find it more difficult - she had always been in the latter category. If you are ill and debilitated, that tends to make matters worse, while gelatine capsules offer a special problem: unless swallowed immediately, they become sticky and tend to clump together. In desperation, I did the only thing I could think of. I took home the capsules, opened up each one, and tipped the contents into a quite tiny pill bottle, made tight the cap and put tape around it for extra surety. I was well aware that barbiturates lose their potency on excessive exposure to air (hence the very small bottle), but bearing in mindthe original 10-fold margin, and with the addition of the brandy, I felt confident we still had an ample margin. This, of course, was just the kind of point on which it would have been sensible to consult somebody more expert.

But to whom could I have turned?

Despite my comparatively passive role, I was very clearly guilty of being an accomplice in suicide (or murder), for which I could have been prosecuted and sentenced to up to 14 years' imprisonment. Thirty years later, prosecution, although still theoretically possible, is almost unthinkable. Prosecutions for ancient offences where the accused's confession is the sole evidence are now, quite rightly, out of favour (and I do not even have an Irish name). At the time, if the hospital had made any difficulty over issuing a death certificate, there would presumably have been a coroner's inquest, possibly followed by a prosecution. That would have been unpleasant for me, even if I had been acquitted. For our daughters it would have been horribly traumatic.

Southampton, October 1991

Return to: Papers of Alan Cock (Click Here)

Go to: Provenance of WB and AC Papers - Mendel Newsletter (Click Here)

Go to: Biography of William Bateson (Click Here)

Go to: Catalogue list of papers of William Bateson (Click Here)

Go to: Evolution Index (Click Here)

Go to: Homepage (Click Here)

This page was established in November 2008 and was last edited on 22/09/2010 by Donald Forsdyke