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James Gerrit Van Zwaluwenburg
The Michigan Alumnus


A Memorial Read Before the University Senate, January 29, 1923

On January 5, 1922, James Ger
rit Van Zwaluwenburg, Professor of Roentgenology in the Medical 
School, died from pneumonia after a 
brief illness in the University Hospital—
the institution in and for which he had 
labored during his entire professional
 career dating from his graduation in

In the memorial exercises for Doctor
 Van Zwaluwenburg held at the University
 Hospital February 8, 1922, a remarkable
 tribute was paid to this exceptional man 
by his colleagues and co-workers. After 
the lapse of a year it is fitting that his 
life and its accomplishments be set forth 
in another memorial for the considera
tion of his university colleagues. 

Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg was born
 May 5, 1874 on his parents' farm in
 Drenthe Township, Ottawa County, Mich
igan. As the name Drenthe, so-called
 evidently from a province in the Nether
lands, and his own name indicate he came 
from Dutch stock. His father, Reyer 
Van Zwaluwenburg, with other mem
bers of the family came to this country 
from the Netherlands in 1850. They set
tled at Groningen, Michigan, near what
 is now the town of Zeeland and proceed
ed to make homes for themselves in the

In 1889 the family sold the farm and 
moved to Holland, Michigan, where Doc
tor Van Zwaluwenburg entered the pre
paratory department of Hope College, re
maining until 1895, his final year being 
spent as a teacher of chemistry. In the 
same year he entered the University of 
Michigan as a sophomore and was grad
uated as a Bachelor of Science in 1898. 
 His work was largely chemistry and his 
former teachers, Professors Campbell
 and Gomberg, testify to his exceptional
 brilliancy as a student and to indefat
igable industry. 

His Early Training

Always it had been his ambition to
 study medicine but his family's resources 
had been strained to the utmost to pro
vide for his college education and it was 
not until 1903 that it was possible for him
 to enter the Medical Department of this 
University. The intervening five years 
were spent in metallurgical work in Sud
bury, Ontario; Elizabeth, New Jersey; 
 and Kansas City.

In 1905 during his medical course he 
was appointed assistant demonstrator of
 anatomy, thus giving him more than the 
usual opportunities for the acquisition of 
a profound knowledge of gross anatomy. 
Ordinarily anatomical details are quickly 
forgotten; at least they can only be recalled by an effort. Not so with Doctor
 Van Zwaluwenburg whose memory was
 exceptionally retentive. Later on during 
the period of this X-ray work he showed
 himself thoroughly familiar with the anat
omy of every portion of the human 
body, a knowledge appearing almost un-
canny to less favored mortals. While hi 
memory for technical names was marvelous, it was not of the parrot variety. His 
visual memory was even more perfect. He had accurate pictures of what lay be
neath the surface and could utilize his 
knowledge at will. 

Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg was grad
uated from the Medical School in 1907
 and in the same year was appointed as
sistant to Professor Dock in the Depart
ment of Internal Medicine. Upon the
 resignation of Professor Dock in 1908
 Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg was appoint
ed Instructor in Internal Medicine un
der Professor Hewlett filling this posi
tion until 1913 when he was made Clini
cal Professor of Roentgenology. In 1917 
he was appointed full Professor of
 Roentgenology, a title he held until his
 death in 1922. 

As Instructor in Internal Medicine

The six years devoted by Doctor Van
 Zwaluwenburg to internal medicine were 
busy and fruitful in every sense of the
 word and were good preparation for
 what turned out to be his life's work, roentgenology. Professor Hewlett was in
terested in research problems along clinical lines and had the faculty of arousing
 enthusiasm for research in his co-work
ers. Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg with 
an accurate scientific mind, combined
 with an interest that never failed and
 with an exceptional industry, threw him-
self into the problems of internal medi
cine with an ardor, which never abated. 
 Early and late he was at the hospital
 working over his patients, studying their
 symptoms, making copious notes for fu
ture reference, at the same time giving
 instruction of a high order. 

He had the rare combination so essen
tial to a good diagnostician, the power 
to grasp and assemble all the facts in a 
given case, with the patience and scien
tific acumen necessary to eliminate the
 unessentials, so that the correct diagnosis 
could be arrived at. His hospital col
leagues recognized his superior abilities 
and sought his opinion in all difficult or 
questionable medical cases. 

His scientific contributions upon sub
jects relating to internal medicine, while
 few, for he was not one to rush in to 
print, are of the highest order. Especial
ly to be mentioned is the paper on "The
 Diagnostic Value of the Orthodiagram 
in Heart Disease" written in conjunc
tion with Doctor L. F. Warren. The 
value of this paper is best set forth by
 Doctor A. W. Crane, '94m, of Kalamazoo, an alumnus of this University dis
tinguished for his work in internal medi
cine and roentgenology:

It is truly remarkable that this early paper 
published in 1911 should have contained and 
discussed every essential feature of what we
 now consider the best method of estimating 
heart volume. He obtained a cardiac silhou
ette and completed the outline of the heart
 shadow as we do today. He borrowed a plani
meter from the Engineering Department
 whereby he could obtain, rapidly and accu
rately the square area of this silhouette by
, which heart volume, may be calculated. He 
discussed suitable tables and showed that none 
existed which gave satisfactory normals for 
height, weight, sex and age. The paper gave 
him at once a high standing among his Ameri
can contemporaries. It was noticed abroad
 and Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg was one of 
three American roentgenologists to be quoted 
by Vaquez and Bordet in 1918 in a monograph 
La Coeur et L'aorte.

Organizing the X-Ray Department

So thoroughly interested, however, 
was Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg in the 
problems of internal medicine and his 
research work that it was only from a sense of duty to the hospital and medical
 school that he consented to organize the
 Department of Roentgenology and as
sume charge of the x-ray work. Once 
having undertaken the task, however, he 
plunged into it with his usual enthusiasm 
and industry, wasting no time in vain 
regrets of what he could have accom
plished as in internist. It was only necessary for him to get interested in this
 new science of roentgenology and the 
rest was comparatively easy. In eight
 short years, beginning with the most 
meager laboratory equipment he became 
a roentgenologist of established reputa
tion with one of the most complete labora
tories. Men came from all parts of the
 country to see his work and learn from 
him—and he gave freely, gladly, of his
 knowledge and time, even though it
 meant extending his working day far
 into the hours of the morning to keep 
up with his work. 

His Executive Ability

No man ever entered the field of ro
entgenology better equipped than Doctor
 Van Zwaluwenburg—skilled chemist, 
 physicist, anatomist, and internist he 
possessed unusual facility for the construction of new and at times compli
cated apparatus, a gift essential in build
ing up a department like roentgenology. 
He was an excellent mathematician, a 
science he made use of constantly in his 
exact x-ray work, as witness his paper 
on "Greater Certainty in the Localiza
tion of Foreign Bodies in the Eye." The 
utilization of this branch of science was
 considered as a matter of course by Doc
tor Van Zwaluwenburg, while it amazed
 and chagrined most of his colleagues who 
had passed and forgotten their mathe
matics years before.

In addition to the qualities already out-
lined Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg reveal
ed upon assuming charge of his depart
ment a rather unexpected capacity along 
executive lines. With moderate charges 
he made his department self-supporting. 
His system of records was practical, com
plete and a delight to the expert in such 
matters. He was among the first to em
ploy the dictaphone. Typewritten re
ports were sent to each referring depart
ment without delay. He developed a sys-
tem for filing away his thousands of 
plates and films so that they were at 
once accessible. His cross-index accord
ing to disease was a model. In short, he 
developed and maintained an efficient de
partment capable of being turned over to 
his successor without a break in the ma

The organization of the department consumed a number of years. Then 
came the accumulation and digestion of 
the immense amount of material, which had poured into the department for as before stated Doctor Van Zwaluwenburg
 was not one to publish hastily without 
thought. But at last he was ready. He 
had more assistants whom he had train
ed so that the department ran smoothly. 
 In rapid succession appeared his x-ray 
studies on tuberculosis and his work on
 pneumoperitoneum of the pelvis in con
junction with Peterson. In two years
 he published six valuable contributions 
in addition to outlining a textbook on
 roentgenology. Then came his sudden 
illness and the breaking of the human 
machine, which he had overworked and
 Had he been spared, he would have 
brought further fame and renown to the 
University which he loved and in whose 
service his entire professional life was

"A Most Congenial Companion"

It is fitting in closing to refer to an-
other side of Doctor Van Zwaluwen
burg's character. To be sure these qual
ities will fade in the picture long before 
his scientific contributions will be for
gotten. Yet these other human relation-
ships are dear to those who knew and 
worked with him. He was a most con-
genial companion, good friend and hon
est in expression and action. He had lit
tle patience with sham and humbug. He 
might differ from you, for he loved to 
take the opposite side, but his arguments
 left no sting behind. He had many 
friends in the State and his associates in 
the National Society devoted to his specialty, the American Roentgen Ray So
ciety were fond of him. How compan
ionable he was is shown by the fact that 
he was "Van" or "Doctor Van" to almost every one who knew him well. This
 demonstrates better than any one other 
thing how universally liked he was. 

November 27, 1903. Doctor Van
 Zwaluwenburg was married to Miss Cor
nelia Benjamin. Two children, Dorothy 
and Benjamin with their mother survive 
him. His home life was exceptionally 
happy. As his father before him he was
 wrapped up in his children and had made
 extensive plans for their education. Occasional motor trips with his family were 
practically his only recreation, for his 
professional work was all consuming. 

Such is the life and work of one who 
a few months ago was a member of this
 University Senate. In a short and busy 
life he wrought well. May his ideals, 
 personality and achievements be an ex
ample and inspiration to those of us who