Commentary

Saunders: Doctor deserved credit for saving King

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2014 

The night before he was killed in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in which he talked about the unwell woman who had grievously wounded him 10 years earlier, recounting how doctors said that if he had merely sneezed, the blade which she’d plunged into his chest would’ve punctured his aorta, and he would have bled to death.

Of the thousands of letters he received wishing him well, King said that night, he remembered only one.

“Dear Dr. King,” it began, “I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School … While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

So am I, little girl. So am I.

I’m also glad that Dr. John Cordice came into work on his day off.

The good doctor

Cordice was one of the surgeons who used a hammer and chisel to crack King’s sternum and remove the blade. Two weeks later, King left the hospital and for the next decade goaded an at-times recalcitrant country into living up to its creed. It was because of the agitation of King and thousands whose names are lost to history – who have no holiday in their honor – that America is great.

John Walter Vincent Cordice Jr.’s name was almost lost to history. Cordice, who was born in Aurora but grew up in Durham, died last month. He was 94.

He was chief of thoracic and vascular surgery at Harlem Hospital, but he was not working Saturday, Sept. 20, 1958. In author Hugh Pearson’s 2002 book “When Harlem Nearly Killed King: The 1958 Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” he wrote that New York Gov. Averell Harriman wanted black surgeons, if possible, to perform the surgery. So Cordice was called in.

The Federal Communications Commission had only approved pagers for general use earlier that year, so it’s unlikely that Cordice had one strapped to his belt. Instead, he said in interviews that his young daughter and he had stopped by his Brooklyn office to pick up mail, when the telephone rang and he was called to Harlem. He said he was told only that an important person had been injured.

Credit given where due

For years, credit for the lifesaving surgery was bestowed upon Dr. Aubre de Lambert Maynard, but many historians and others concur that it was Cordice and Dr. Emil Naclerio, an Italian-American, who did the heavy lifting. It’s now accepted by many that Maynard, who basked in the accolades as the surgeon who saved King – wouldn’t you? – came in and removed the blade.

I couldn’t reach Alan D. Aviles, president of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., which operates New York public clinics and hospitals. But a spokesman sent a statement in which Aviles called Cordice “a brilliant clinical practitioner, a wise and thoughtful teacher, and a man of deep and abiding kindness and quiet modesty. It is entirely consistent with his character that many who knew him may well not have known that he was also a part of history.”

It was probably that modesty that led him to wait until recent years to acknowledge that it was Naclerio and he who performed the surgery, not Maynard.

In a 2012 television interview, Cordice said Maynard, who was legitimately esteemed, “decided it would be better if he assumed a principal role here, in spite of the fact that he did not do the surgery. We were not going to challenge him because actually he was the boss.”

Hmmm. Makes sense. Have you ever heard the old saying: “The operation was successful, but the patient died”? This is one instance where the operation was successful and the patient survived.

So did the nation.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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