By Barbara Riddle
Is there a gene for skepticism, for extreme independence of thought, or intellectual bravery? I ask because of an incident in my life, not too long ago, when I suddenly felt genetically connected to an ancestor across space and time. In the depths of despair about the state of my country, I (educated as a scientist) was seeking comfort from some sort of nonreligious group. I suddenly perked up and Googled ‘Humanism.’ And there, on the homepage of the American Humanist Association, was the name of my long-forgotten great uncle, Oscar Riddle, as Humanist of the Year in 1959! I felt a zap of energy and some childhood memories came flooding back.
My Midwestern relatives had hardly mentioned his name (to protect me?) except to hint that Oscar was essentially the black sheep of the family who had messed around with pigeons behind the barn (perversion was hinted at) and had publicly come out as (gasp) an avowed atheist. Later, in graduate school, I found out that he was considered one of the outstanding American biologists of his time, appearing on the cover of Time magazine on January 9, 1939 (my birthday is January 9th!) in honor of isolating the hormone prolactin. (It turns out that doves lactate, and he had used them in his studies.)
Here I was, many years later, finding comfort in discovering that Uncle Oscar was not only an esteemed scientist, but an outspoken atheist and humanist. One of his main concerns was the role of organized religions in blocking open scientific research and rational thinking, and fostering violent conflict among different cultures. This is a concern I share, and obviously a problem more timely than ever in these insanely anti-intellectual times. My Uncle Oscar and I never met, but I feel so connected to this adventurous young man who explored the Orinoco River and taught biology in Puerto Rico before pursuing his career at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, among other places.
One last, darkly comic memory must be mentioned. As a conflicted and sad graduate student stuck in a biochemistry lab during the political protests against the “war” in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, I somehow managed to contact my Uncle Oscar (two months before his death at age 91) and ask his advice: Should I quit my safe position and join activist friends in trying to extricate the U.S. from the terrible mess in Vietnam? His response opened a gulf between us: He urged me to stay at my research bench. I could be more useful there than if I joined the Army.
Talk about miscommunication! And, yet, he remains for me a symbol of sanity and discipline, a member of my weird family who was respected by the world. As a New York City child of divorce, whose Midwestern grandparents all died in Oklahoma or Nebraska before I was born, I had so much wanted an extended family, not just the admittedly “interesting” people who floated in and out of my parents’ parallel Greenwich Village lives.
I claim you now, Uncle Oscar!
‘Good Without a God’ is the American Humanist Association’s slogan. My uncle and I like it.
Greenwich Village native Barbara Riddle is a frequent contributor to WestView News. Her memoir-in-progress can be read at talesfromagreenwichvillagegirlhood.blogspot.com/. (Segments from that work have been excerpted in this piece.) Barbara’s novel set in the 1960s, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke, is available online as an e-book or paperback. Visit girlpretending.com. You may contact Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.