Technical Humor


Like many modern technological creations, the X-ray machine often seems to dominate the man who handles it. Black topped, black-tubed, it looks like a monstrous bridge lamp upon a lead table; this, and the serious nature of the work can easily make insignificant or lugubrious the personality of the man who pushes the buttons.

The machine in the medical room of Dillon Field house is indeed the overpowering object. But scattered there, one finds other objects perhaps as fascinating. Old tennis shoes, scales, rules, pamphlets, a red lantern hanging from a steam pipe, a Zimmer skeletal fracture chart, a sign--"office closed Saturdays and Sundays in summer."

All these indicate that the man, not the machine, is important here. Though he is short, X-ray technician and Dillon fixture Joe Murphy cannot be dwarfed by his radiating photographic device. "That whistle box" he says; since 1935, the whistle box has taken hundreds of thousands of pictures and Murphy has made friends with everyone from telephone operators to James Bryant Conant.

In the 18-year process, Joe Murphy, with his mobile face, slightly bulging eyes, and gift for sareasm of all brands, has come to occupy a position much like that of a Master Sergeant. A photographer, trainer, counsellor, office manager, he is, as surgeon Thomas B. Quigley put it, "the vice-president in charge of getting things done."

Doctors and officials in the Hygiene Department swear by Murphy, and when necessary, Murphy swears at them, as well as his wounded subjects. Usually, his frankness gets results, as in the classic case of the Brooklyn Englishman who injured his shoulder slightly in a house football game.

This veteran (the story dates from 1945) was born in Flatbush, but spent a year in the Army stationed at Oxford. His accent was awesome, and intentional.

Murphy heard him mumbling as the doctors worked over him. "Say son," he said," have you ever heard of Professor Packard? He runs a speech remedial course. You ought to go see him." The veteran was enraged, but evidently thought it over. In three weeks, he had reverted to pure Brooklynese and a semblance of normality.

The walking-wounded, the stretcher cases, the dressed and undressed, enter Murphy's cubicle all afternoon; for those who look seriously injured, Murphy has an "inspirational" but equally effective technique. "My job is just as much to make them feel they're in good hands, as it is to take pictures," he says.

Watch him as he arranges the twisted, hanging foot of a lacrosse player for a shot, gently placing the foot, moving the tube to spare the player movement.

"Is it broken, Joe?" The player's leg is numb. "When will it start to throb?"

"You had the pain when you got hit," Murphy says. "Hold still--still. There. Even if it is broken, the pain won't be bad." As the injured man will tell you later, the pain usually isn't.

Non-inspirational comments, however, have made Murphy's mark; the 45 year old Irishman, whose crew cut is now slightly graying, has great ability at stringing a credulous victim into fright, then self-laughter. To an innocent freshman, who had just been told by a doctor that his knee required surgery, Murphy was heard to say "Knee job, eh? Fine--I know that doctor has always wanted to do a knee operation." That the doctor in question was Quigley himself hardly alleviated the freshman's tremors.

Murphy finds discussion of the Hygiene Department's "powerful" X-ray and medical facilities absorbing, but reveals all the while the equally human and scientific aspects of his own work.

"Look at the poor psychiatrist," he says. "Talks to somebody all day, then the guy goes home and shoots his wife. I like my work because I get results immediately, and nine times out of ten, I get to reassure people. They like me. Some nights when I go home, I feel like the mayor of Harvard Square."

The mornings, Murphy spends at Stillman, although his primary loves are the limping athletes of Dillon--"like the one who wanted two four-way cold tablets because he ached in eight places."

Murphy's humor and essential kindliness are well-known by now, and he has become what he calls "the perennial toastmaster"; he presides over many H.A.A. functions. And although he is married, and has three children, that fact has never stopped him from bringing numbers of his boys home for dinner, for financial aid, for a talk on whatever psychological problem may be bothering them. But still those who are deliberately inane, or those who think position means special consideration, can hardly presume upon him. They are likely to be treated as was the gentleman who called the medical room about his minor injury.

"I'm the man with the twisted knee," he said.

"Oh indeed," said Murphy, whose department examines forty knees a week. "Run right over here, we're waiting just for you."