Indiana University Bloomington

Memories of Herman Wells

By Howard Gest, September 1979, London

I was on sabbatical leave doing research in the Biochemistry Department of Imperial College.  On Sunday, September 2, an article in the London Times announced that Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet (OBE), his wife Ginny (plus their dog Charlie), two explorer colleagues and 14 volunteer team members would begin their Transglobe Expedition at midday, departing from Greenwich (near London).

Prince Charles, who was the expedition’s patron, described the plan as “mad but marvelous.”  Their intentions: surface travel around the world from pole to pole [53,000 miles, 5 continents].  The 3-year expedition was successful and Charlie became the first dog to visit both poles.  Sir Ranulph is without doubt the world’s greatest living explorer and adventurer; his exploits are truly legendary.

I was entranced with the expedition’s plans, and decided to witness the departure of the expedition ship, if possible.  There was barely time to get to Greenwich by train, but I made it.  A huge crowd attended.  Close to the pier, another attraction was on display, the historic small yacht Gypsy Moth IV.  Sir Francis Chichester sailed it around the world single-handed in 1966-7.

As the crowd dispersed I happened to meet Herman Wells and Claude Rich. In a five-minute chat, I learned that they were on their way to Paris. Since I had missed lunch, I asked Wells if he could recommend a nearby restaurant. He named one and they departed. One day, about a year later I was walking across  IU’s campus and met Wells again. His first words were: “How did you like the restaurant?” In addition to everything else, Wells knew food!  What a memory!

Soon after coming to Indiana University in 1966 as Chairman of the Microbiology Department, I began to interact with Wells on various academic matters. As his 85th birthday approached, I began to think about an appropriate gift for this very remarkable man.  I recalled a famous essay written by Cicero in 44 B.C. , “On Old Age.” One paragraph struck me as particularly appropriate. I consulted my friend Fredric Brewer, whose hobby was elegant printing using his own press.  I asked him to reproduce the selected paragraph in a form suitable for framing, and I delivered the gift. Wells hung it on his office wall amidst many of his mementos.

Excerpt from “On Old Age” by Cicero:

“So people who declare that there are no activities for old age are speaking beside the point.  It is like saying that the pilot has nothing to do with sailing a ship because he leaves others to climb the masts and run along the gangways and work the pumps, while he himself sits quietly in the stern holding the rudder. He may not be doing what the younger men are doing, but his contribution is much more significant and valuable than theirs.  Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgment. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”

I received the following letter from him, dated July 24, 1987:

Dear Howard:
You’ve proven that your memory is just as good as ever. I appreciate the pages from Cicero’s essay and the paragraph which you are using is indeed a good choice. I note that Cicero was 62 at the time he was speaking these brave words about Cato at 84, and I’m inclined to accept them. However, I think it’s worth noting the difference between 62 and 85 or 86 is considerable. We will indeed get the entire essay, and I’m sure to enjoy it thoroughly. Thank you for remembering. With warm good wishes, I am
Herman B Wells
University Chancellor