Anecdotage.

If you haven’t read The Feud in this Tuesday’s New York Times “Science Times” section, do have a look. It’s worth it just for the unintentionally self-damning quotes from the two heart surgeons involved, Dr. Denton A. Cooley (now 87) and Dr. Michael E. DeBakey (now 99), who have apparently been engaged in a 38-year-long feud over the circumstances surrounding the first implantation of a fully artificial heart in a human.

However, my favorite part of the article had nothing to do with the feud:

Dr. Cooley recalled that a lawyer had once asked him during a trial if he considered himself the best heart surgeon in the world.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Don’t you think that’s being rather immodest?” the lawyer asked.

“Perhaps,” Dr. Cooley responded. “But remember I’m under oath.”

The New York Times probably didn’t fact-check that, since they’re just transcribing a quote: for the purposes of the piece, the important thing is that Cooley told the story, not whether it’s true. But court documents are public records, and it would be nice if someone were to track this one down. If it’s real, then it’s a verifiable instance of an anecdote I first read years ago in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, edited by Clifton Fadiman (a wonderful book that is, oddly enough, neither little nor brown — it’s just published by Little, Brown & Company):

ROWLAND, Henry Augustus (1848-1901), US physicist, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University (1875-1901). He laid the foundation for modern spectroscopy.

1. Professor Rowland was summoned as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?”

“I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion,” replied the professor quietly.

Later a friend, well acquainted with the professor’s modest and retiring disposition, observed that he had been amazed to hear him praise himself in this way; it was completely out of character. Rowland asked, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”

(This anecdote is also told of others.)

I have to admit, my instinct is that Cooley just appropriated this old chestnut for himself, and that it never actually happened (to him). After all, what expert wouldn’t fantasize about finding themselves under oath for such a question? But I’d be pleased to discover that I’m wrong and that it really took place.

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