A few years ago, I purchased a short book about Marcel Proust’s father, Adrian, out of curiosity while in Paris. The author, Dr. Robert Le Mar, was a friend of Marcel’s brother, Robert, and was known for his work as an internist, translator, author, and illustrator. The book, published in 1935, was intended to commemorate Adrian’s death in 1903 but was delayed, resulting in the inclusion of funeral-like poems. In May 1935, Le Mar and Robert Proust visited Illiers, Marcel’s childhood town transformed into the idyllic “Combray.” However, Robert passed away in May 1935, turning the book into a double elegy.
When I initially bought the book, I knew very little about its contents. To me, it seemed like a literary gesture of respect, and I only briefly skimmed its pages. The most striking thing I noticed was an unsigned commandment inscribed in English on a fly leaf dated July 1936. I stored the book in my bookshelf, never giving it much thought.
However, in May 2020, during what Proust referred to as his “Month of Mary,” my interest in public health led me to retrieve the book. As I opened its pages, a small sprig of hawthorn, known as Aubepin, fell out. The hawthorn held significance to Marcel Proust, evoking memories of his childhood and its enchanting spring flowers. Ironically, hawthorn is also associated with promoting heart health, commonly found in pharmacies.
Adrian Proust gained fame as a sentinel against the pandemics of his time. His death in 1903 came at an “untimely” moment, just as he was on the verge of establishing a permanent international organization for public health. He attended numerous international conferences on sanitary matters, including the 11th International Conference on Sanitation in 1903. Though some considered him pompous and boring, Proust was esteemed for his tireless efforts in public health. His goal was to create an international public health organization, and in October 1903, he delivered a speech pushing for its establishment.
On November 20, 1903, Proust rose from the 11th International Congress of Hygiene to address the annual meeting on tuberculosis. Despite his exhaustion, he continued to advocate for public health initiatives. He later suffered a stroke and passed away two days later.
The funeral of Adrian Proust was a significant event, attended by prominent figures such as clinicians, epidemiologists, and public health officials. Adrian’s wife, who had lost her husband just two years prior, received condolences from various individuals, including those who were aware of her late husband’s close love interests.
In the end,…