AUDIOTAPED INTERVIEW OF PHILIP BANKS, SON OF WILLIAM BANKS, DVM
February 14, 2005
MR. BANKS: Dad pioneered the field of veterinary radiology. Maybe "pioneered" isn't the right term, but he was certainly at the forefront of that particular discipline. When I was young, Dad went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee several times. We spent the summer of 1959 in Oak Ridge where Dad studied nuclear medicine.
MR. METZGER: Yes, that's a great little piece of information to have. ORINS they call it -- Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies.
MR. BANKS: Dad told me one time that he had to get all kinds of security clearances to get there. That was during the height of the Cold War and everything was top secret, and of course Oak Ridge was where they developed the atomic bomb. The FBI had gone back and talked to people from Dad's childhood about him before he could get the clearance. He got a very, very high level security clearance. Eventually, Dad and the FBI agent became good friends. He studied the summer of '59 at Oak Ridge after visiting several times before that in the '50s. I believe he started the department of veterinary radiology in 1953.
MR. METZGER: Okay. Well, Dr. Bonte said of your dad that he was one who "started veterinary nuclear medicine in this part of the world, and he was one of the few vets who did nuclear medicine anywhere. I forgot where he trained, but wherever it was, they did a heck of a good job on him."
MR. BANKS: That was probably Oak Ridge because I don't think there were any academic places where he could have gone to do that.
MR. METZGER: Right, and that was cutting edge. I mean if you wanted to learn about nuclear studies, peaceful studies, Oak Ridge was the place. It was part of the Atomic Energy Commission's Atoms For Peace program. You know, because they developed the nuclear weapons, and they wanted to do something positive with radioisotopes. Anyway, Dr. Bonte says that your father first pointed out to him that hyperthyroidism was a fatal, terminal disease in elderly cats and that they developed apathetic hyperthyroidism just like elderly human patients do. He said, "Banks somehow had realized this along the way and was able to diagnose it by doing uptakes in cats. I don't know if he ever wrote this up. I don't know, but he certainly should have. He introduced the concept to medical doctors, and he was a very good president. He had an excellent sense of humor to go with his fancy lab and his special knowledge of animals."
MR. BANKS: Yeah. That's definitely W.C. He was something. Daddy had a presence about him. He was a big guy but he also had a large, charismatic personality. He was very quiet but he was very dry, very funny. He'd say really funny things, and he wouldn't smile, and you didn't know whether he was teasing you or what. On some levels, he was kind of a John Wayne kind of guy. By that I mean he was a big ol' guy, very athletic, you know, fearless. He was unique. He had an interesting life. Daddy was the first person, I guess, ever in his family to go to college, and he was extremely proud of that. He had actually been a high school dropout. He'd grown up on the streets of Chicago and was a street kid and pretty tough. He and all his friends played sports all the time, and many of them got recruited into a National Guard outfit to play basketball and eventually became city champions of Chicago in 1928. In the National Guard, Daddy got assigned to a veterinary unit, and this old veterinarian took an interest in him and saw that he had a gift for working with animals and was very scientific. He told Daddy, “You know, you really ought to be a veterinarian.” Dad replied, “Well, I don't even have a high school diploma.” So the old vet said, “Well, you better get your ass back to school.”
During this time, Dad had a bunch of different jobs, but the one he talked about the most was being a carpet salesman. He was a rug merchant for Marshall Field's, and he'd sell rugs all day long, and then he would go to night school to get his high school diploma.
The only vet school in the country that would accept him was Texas A&M because they had such low academic standards at the time. Dad loved it in Bryan, Texas. He loved A&M. He didn't make a big deal out of it. He didn't wear a maroon blazer, or have Go Aggies, Number One on his car or anything, but in his heart he was very, very devoted to A&M and would never leave here. He blossomed here and “came into his own”. At that time, A&M is not like it is now. It was an all-male, all-military school. Comparatively speaking, Dad was an older guy, a “Yankee,” and he was really nervous that nobody would talk to him. He arrived via train and got off, and immediately everybody started saying, “Howdy, howdy, howdy.” He became really comfortable at Texas A&M and went from being a dropout to a distinguished professor.
He graduated from A&M in '41, at the age of 30 and then went into private practice. Later, he was an extension vet in Oklahoma and Texas and then he came back to Bryan in 1949 or 1950 from Oklahoma and stayed here ever since. He stayed here until he died 25 years later. He had terminal cancer and may have gotten that from some of the experiments and stuff he'd done with the radiation. I don't know. He didn't really think, that but I kind of did. But he knew he was terminal, and so he picked out his own tombstone because he was afraid my mother would want to erect some kind of gigantic statue. which he didn’t want her to do.
He picked out all his pallbearers. He picked out the suit he was going to wear. I mean, he did all that just to kind of avoid anybody else having to make any decisions when they were grieving. I asked him when he knew he was terminal if he'd thought about taking his own life because he would have certainly been capable of doing that with all the medicine and stuff that he had available and his knowledge and everything. He said that he had thought about that. He considered it, but then he told me a weird story.
He said when he was a little boy and his parents got divorced up there in Chicago that they used to make him go to the movies all the time, so he never really liked going to movies. He'd watch them on TV, but he didn't like going. He ended up working at the movie theater as an usher at one point. He said that if he had taken his own life, right before the cancer did, it would have been kind of like leaving a movie early, and he said his life had been such an adventure, that he wanted to see it through to the end.
Dad taught at the vet school for all that time. He was full professor from 1955 on. His father was from Berlin and was a very dapper ladies man. He always wanted my dad to be an attorney, and I guess dad sort of passed that on to me. He always tried to direct me in that way. I didn't have a good brain for math and science, so it was probably the best thing, but now a lot of times I'd give anything to be a veterinarian. I mean, in retrospect, I like it.
He was real quiet, but he was extremely proud of his work and had a real high standard of professionalism. He tried to infuse his students with that.
MR. METZGER: Well, I guess I wonder how did he get to Oak Ridge? I mean, it's one thing to head up a radiology department at Texas A&M, but to get all the way to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and be a part of that nuclear program. Did somebody recruit him? Did he apply?
MR. BANKS: I don't know. There's one kind of weird story about that, too. He was a very war-like individual, and because he was half German, he really wanted to go fight the Nazis. He couldn't get in the army because he'd had tuberculosis as a child and he had all these scars on his lungs that the x-rays showed. He doctored his documents to make his lesions not so noticeable. All through the war, he tried to get in the army, and he couldn't, and then he went in actually after the war was over. You know, he went in, and I don't know how those lesions got smaller. He may have even altered his X-rays.
MR. METZGER: You've told me a lot about him as a person, and that is critical. We decided as we went through this history-gathering effort that, yes, we want historical facts and to learn about the technology our past leaders worked with, but also we want to motivate and inspire. And your father's story of how he was a Chicago street-wise kid and high school drop-out but become all that he was including president of the Southwestern Chapter Society of Nuclear Medicine—that’s a great story. That says something.
MR. BANKS: Well, there's just a bunch of stories I could talk about W.C. I'm looking at a picture of him right now with his dog. He had an Airedale named Peggy. He loved James Thurber, and one of James Thurber's best short stories was The Dog Who Bit People, and that dog was an Airedale. It was originally my dog, but it was really his dog.
My folks had a long hall and when daddy got real sick and couldn't get out of bed. Peggy would go down that hall every day, and Dad would feed her candy, which is probably something you shouldn't do from a dietary standpoint. Dad died early in the morning and they came and took him away, and then Peggy went down the hall looking for him, and when he wasn't there, she just went into hysterics and started howling and crying and crawling up in his bed, and she wouldn't leave. She didn't eat for almost two weeks, you know, grieving over him. People say, “Dogs don't know,” but I know that dog knew he was dead. There's no doubt in my mind about that; like I said, he had a definite presence.
His best friend is a fellow named Horace Baron. I'll tell you my favorite story about them. Daddy was this old tough street kid from Chicago, and Horace was a big ol' farm boy from College Station. Horace was real shy and gentle, and people would pick on him at the vet school and tease him so Dad decided he was going to teach Horace how to defend himself.
Daddy made Horace get in the ring with him with his gloves, and Daddy started jumping around and hitting him and popping him, and Horace kept saying, “Bill, I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this,” and Daddy kept hitting him. Finally Horace got mad and said, “I told you to stop.” Horace hit him one time and broke three of his ribs. And that was about two weeks before my folks' marriage and honeymoon.