Sybil Wolin was a little girl from Coney Island, New York. One day she became horribly ill and there was no known way to save her. Luckily, she was admitted to a hospital which had been given permission to test out this new medical development nicknamed the “wonder drug.” Thanks to her survival and other successful clinical trials, the drug penicillin went both to the troops on the frontlines and to civilians worldwide.
Father’s Work in the Navy Yard
My father was directly involved in the war. My mother was a housewife. My father was trying to get his plumbing license. I lived in New York; you have to – you know you can be a licensed plumber, you could be a plumber’s assistant or whatever and he was called up for the draft and he was – I think it was 4H at the time. He had flat feet. And so he did not go into the troops, and he was sent to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And while he was working there, a part of his finger was sawed off, and as long as I knew my father he had – I think it was on his left hand and – what was that finger called? It’s not pointer, it’s not the index finger, it’s not the ring finger not the pinky not the thumb… I guess it’s the middle finger. Right, so I have no memory of his coming home with that injury but I always knew that the injury was associated with the war.
In 1944, my appendix ruptured and I had a massive bacterial infection throughout the whole peritoneal lining of my body. I was 4 years old and I got the drug. It was amazing. So there were these wild stories going around. I remember my mother telling me that the doctors told her you, you know: “Frieda don’t worry. She’s not going to die; we have this wonder drug.” I knew it as the wonder drug.
And I have memories of being in the hospital. This was not just stories that were being told to me afterwards. I have memories of receiving a blood transfusion. But there was a lot of confusion about who was getting this and why, and I mean my parents were certainly not on any inside track.
I guess because I was a child, and I was clearly dying, and I clearly could be helped. And that appendicitis, and infections from appendicitis, were common, so that if it worked on me, you know then they had a good thing. Because you know it was new, and curing bacterial infections were new . . . and so I got penicillin. And I lived.
The war was for me in this bizarre, ironic way, it saved my life while people were dying. I mean that’s the thing: people were dying. My neighbors’ sons, you know, all over the world – all over Europe people were dying and I lived. Because the war accelerated the understanding and the production and distribution of penicillin.
I was in the hospital for 5 weeks and I got out on September ’44, one year before the war ended. And I had memories. My memories of the war are primarily from that period of time, and I remember the day the war ended and it was probably around the year anniversary of the time that I left the hospital. I very vividly remember leaving the hospital and there was a child on my block who was considerably older than I was and she got strep throat. And she developed pneumatic heart disease, which is what happens when you get strep throat and you’re not treated with penicillin. And she was in the hospital and she came into the hospital before I did, and I left before, and I remember her standing at the window and waving goodbye to me. She was… she died.
She didn’t die then; she died in child birth. She was told not to have a child. She died in child birth . . . her name was Elaine Mullen.
Learning to Walk
In child development, there’s what’s called critical periods, and if something stops you, like if you don’t get to hear language during the critical period for language development, it’s very difficult to develop language after that. And I was probably in the critical period for the development of a lot of motor skills. So first of all I was really weak, like, it’s bad putting a child, a four year old child in bed for five weeks, and then you don’t have very strong muscles. I think I had also lost – that wasn’t, that’s not the critical period for walking; that’s earlier. But I couldn’t walk. They had put me on the floor and I fell down. And again, my parents – I don’t know what the state of the art of physical therapy was at that point. It was certainly not anything my parents knew about; the hospital was really interested in my health about penicillin. Although, I do have very fond memories of my pediatrician who was very kind to me.
And so my mother taught me how to walk. And she took – I used to, I had a doll and carriage, and she loaded the doll carriage up with books so tilt or fall forward when I had my weight on it. And I would push the doll carriage. I liked the doll carriage. And so I gradually learned how to walk. But I like, I never walked like a normal person, I mean, I had some back trouble about ten years ago and I went to physical therapy and the physical therapist was walking behind me and he said do me, “Do you always walk like that?” And I said, “What do you mean?” I don’t swing my arms. I just had my arms down and he actually had to teach me how to swing my arms when I walked. Like I kept my arms rigid and when I think about it I probably had my arms rigid when I learned how to walk and I was holding on to the doll carriage.
And then I remember my grandmother who lived a couple blocks would come to our apartment in the morning and, I was being toted around in a carriage and she would take me for a walk. On Surf Avenue at the base of the boardwalk – there was a big boardwalk; there still is in Coney Island and I had to go to the bathroom and there was blood in my urine. And I remember her saying to me that she wasn’t going to tell my mother because they weren’t taking me back to the hospital. And it obviously wasn’t very serious because I believe she didn’t tell my mother; I maybe had a scratch or something. I don’t know what my grandmother saw. But I remember her saying to me, “Don’t say anything or they’ll take you back to the hospital.” So I remember that, and then, you know, my memories of getting well are very entwined with, you know, my whole story and is entwined with my memories of the end of the war.
Recovery and the End of the War
I became aware of the war if there was a loud noise on the street you know, well, whatever it was an inner city neighborhood. there were loud noises on the street: sirens, I would do all the bomb stuff. But I had no idea where Europe was, where Berlin was, so I became very fearful about the war. And then my grandmother, who was a very uneducated woman, would sit with me and look at pictures of magazines, and whenever she saw someone who she thought was ugly, she would say to me, “That’s Hitler.”
Wounded in the Philippines
I remember that stream of refugees coming back and there were lots of people around who had numbers on their arms, and there were people on street corners making these makeshift stands begging for money. They were trying to raise money to give to the refugees. And my most vivid memory which is the time – I mean, I was very scared and emotionally affected but it didn’t affect me the way it did when I said my own story about the positives that came out of the war is that there were four families living in the house that I was in. They had a daughter, one whom I was very intrigued with. She was a teenager – she was older than me – and I used to go there and their son was drafted. And I remember the night when we got a phone call that he had been wounded in the Philippines, and there was no further information about him. And I remember his mother, whose name was Sylvia, was frantic and she tried to call the State Department. And I remember the scene of her, “Just tell me where he is.” It was very hysteric; a lot of crying and screaming and that kind of hysteria. It wasn’t middle class society where people restrained; these were people who did not restrain their emotions very easily. He came back from the war, and I remember his coming back from the war. But I also remember “wounded in the Philippines.” I knew what that meant.
What I do remember from when I got older was post war prosperity. That was really a huge thing and really, I mean even when I graduated from college in ’62 the country was still having it. I remember going to Europe in ’61 I went and I bought leather gloves for a dollar a pair. And that was because the American dollar was worth so much and things were depressed and I went to Cologne. I mean, this is interesting: I went to Cologne on that trip and it was rubble. It was still rubble. I couldn’t believe it. And I was like, “Yeah, there was really a war here.”