Memories: Isabelle Rapin, M.D.

I recently wrote a blog about Isabelle Rapin whom I called The Grande Dame of Autism Research.  I first thought about writing the blog after reading some of her obituaries. They all exalted her academic virtues with platitudes that left her personal and human characteristics hidden to the reader. In this regard my initial blog was meant to share some of my personal experiences regarding this great lady. More recently her family held a memorial service for Isabelle.  I was blessed in getting to know many personal stories about Isabelle that reinforced my won personal opinions. With the permission of her family I am fortunate to provide the reader with some of these memories. I am indebted to Carol (Isabelle’s cousin) and Christine (Isabelle’s daughter) for giving me this opportunity.

Memories: Isabelle Rapin, M.D.

By Carol Reeves Parke, 2017

It is a privilege to share my memories of my cousin Isabelle. Living as I far away as I do, in Virginia, I dearly wish that our branch of the extended family and Isabelle’s were in much closer proximity, not spread as we are now, from coast to coast.

A few memories, then.  Our family never knew our Swiss cousins as children, thanks to the considerable distance between Southport, CT and Lausanne – not to mention the advent of World War II, which broke out when Isabelle was just fourteen and I was almost six.  My dad, who was Isabelle’s only American uncle, always kept in good touch with his sister Mary Coe, and several years after the war we finally made plans to visit our cousins. My parents, my brother and I sailed for Europe in the summer of 1953, while our poor sister, who was only 11, was relegated to camp.  I was in high school at the time, and my brother, in college.  What a wonderful time we had!  We saw a little bit of London and Paris, but the main purpose and the high point of our trip was, for sure, visiting with our “Swiss family.”

In 1953, Isabelle and a schoolmate spent the summer in the Alps, studying for their medical school finals, and arrangements had been made for us to meet them in a small mountain village.  My parents and Isabelle’s stayed in a little village pension, but my brother and I were lucky enough to be staying further up the mountain in a real Swiss chalet. I can still remember walking up, up, up the mountain and into that chalet, utterly charmed by the flowers in the window box, embroidered linens, fresh-smelling wood, and the bed, tucked right into the wall.  It was simple, so tidy, just perfect!

And Isabelle!  I can still see her taking a break from her studies, joining our mountain picnic, sharing raclette – delicious cheese, melted in a little fire we built among the rocks, and scraped onto gently boiled half-potatoes.  All of this occurred in a steeply raked meadow with a handful of curious cows, and next to a mountain stream.  I can still see her there, standing in her shorts, tilting up the wine bottle we’d shared, finishing the last drops. How daring!  I was in awe.  She was friendly to the American cousins she barely knew, in a uniquely European, Isabelle sort of way.

A few years later, Isabelle was freshly in New York City, starting her American career. She was working at Bellevue Hospital, and I was at college in Connecticut – the same one Isabelle’s sister Annette had attended. (At the time we all knew Annette much better than we knew her older sister.)  Living arrangements for junior medical staff at major hospitals were horrendous back then, with long, long hours, the lowly interns pretty much camping out in very small quarters.  All the best hospitals (including Bellevue) offered beginning physicians the tiniest of stipends for the privilege of training and working there.  On the rare weekend off Isabelle would travel to my family’s CT house for a change of scene and R&R with her “Uncle Bill” and  “Aunt Lib,” my parents.  We were always glad to see her.  (My father, though traditional in his views, liked and respected capable women, and always treated Isabelle’s accomplishment with interest and pleasure.)

At the time, I was already dating my future husband.  Occasionally, Isabelle and I were in Southport at the same time, and on those weekend evenings, heading for our rooms, we were apt to chat.  One time we were talking about dating.  Quite wistfully, she said,  “You’re so lucky, Carol – you’re dating at the time you should be dating, meeting nice guys at the right time.  I was so busy with my studies… and now, at my age, everyone I really like turns out to be… unsuitable in one crucial way or another!”

Isabelle would talk about her own experiences, growing up, and those of her American colleagues.  Brought up to love literature, music and the arts, she said her American peers had focused so early on math/science that they’d almost entirely missed out on the arts and culture she so enjoyed.  (She must have had some hopelessly boring dates!)

And then… Harold!   On one special evening not many months after my own wedding and not long before theirs, my new husband and I were invited to dinner. (We were all living in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side.)  Isabelle cooked a delicious meal, complete with wine and a wonderful, pastry-like Swiss dessert, sweet, and full of butter and cream. Very simple, and oh, so good!  As good as it was, the best part of that evening was getting to know Harold.  By the time we left, (very late!) we knew we had some real connections in New York, and we knew how much we were going to like him.

Isabelle and Harold married less than a year after I did, and in my parents’ Connecticut living room. Isabelle was radiant!  It’s hard to express how happy my Aunt Mary Coe and Uncle René looked, and Harold’s family, too.  Later that year, the two honeymooned in Europe, Isabelle introducing Harold to Isabelle’s Swiss family and friends. They also took the opportunity to announce the future arrival of the first of their (eventual) four contributions to the next generation.

Before we knew it, first one, and then two unbelievably blond daughters had been born to “I and H,” as we were coming to call them.  I promptly followed suit with our own not-quite-so-blond daughters.  Alas, we were outmatched with the addition of two lively Oaklander boys!

I asked Isabelle about a pediatrician, and she immediately recommended Dr. Doris Wethers. “Why Dr. Weathers?” I asked, and this is what Isabelle said:  “I want a pediatrician who treats me like a worried mother when my child is sick, not like another doctor who should know all the answers. And Doris is terrific!”  Naturally, Isabelle was right; Dr. Wethers was terrific.

Klinkenberg on the Hudson!  We had wonderful times on occasion, with all six children in tow.  I remember one trip in particular—the only time our family spent the night there. The children had played hard outside, going to bed minus baths or a swim.  At the time, “Klink” had a second-floor bunkroom of sorts, in which all of the children were sleeping.  The next morning, when I went in to rouse them – what a shock!  It was way, way too reminiscent of a recent trip we’d taken, to the zoo.  (Humans are animals, indeed.)

“Klink” is also where we first met Isabelle’s great friend, Oliver Sacks.  I can still see him in my mind’s eye, emerging from the Hudson River, dripping.  What a special relationship!

Another vignette (also mentioned by my sister):  It’s late Sunday afternoon at my mother’s house in CT.  Isabelle is on the sofa, reading (Life, Time or Newsweek, I’m sure!)  It’s time to return to the City, most likely in the old Citroen Harold kept running for years, I don’t know how.  I can still see the ever-capable Harold trotting calmly about, gathering up the four children’s’ paraphernalia, locating those same children, and packing up the car – Isabelle still serenely reading.  After they’d left my mother never failed to say, “Harold is a saint!”

Over the many years I’ve kept in touch with H and I, and with their children, I have treasured these relationships, especially with the two girls who were so close in age to my own. Isabelle was so proud of her children (and their children!).  She (and they) have not failed to include us in invitations to family events, nor failed to let me know about their lives and accomplishments.  How well I well remember the last time I was able to visit with Isabelle’s younger brother, my cousin Charles.  It was at a family event arranged by Isabelle’s oldest daughter, still close to the beginning of her own medical career, when she and her family were at Johns Hopkins.  Charles had come from Switzerland for the event.  We hadn’t seen him in years, and my mother, my daughter and I had a wonderful chance for a visit.  Not so long after, he died unexpectedly, making us more grateful than ever of that time together.

Getting together was not so easy as my own family moved from one State to another, and especially, when I moved to Virginia.  I was happy when my last career move was to upstate NY, as it made visits to “Klink” a possibility again.  On occasion, driving between Syracuse and my CT hometown, I would drop in at “Klink,” learn what new projects Isabelle was working on and catch up on family.  When we finally lost my mother, aged 92, Isabelle and her whole family were so supportive, attending the events and just being with us, despite their busy lives.  That meant a lot.

I’ll always appreciate how complimentary and supportive Isabelle was throughout my adult life, through every challenge and success.  She always had a good word to say, so admiring of the managerial and administrative components of my work, so modest about her own extraordinary accomplishments, and uncomplaining about the challenges she faced (except, in latter years, she truly hated the physical therapy she was made to endure!)

Harold shared the most special relationship with Isabelle.  Everyone knows that.  I have always felt privileged to have had a window, really, from the start – to watch as their relationship grew, and as it manifested itself throughout their lives.  Science and excellence in service to others were two of Isabelle’s strongest governing principles, but Harold truly was her lodestar. She knew how essential he was to her success in every area of her life and to her deepest wellbeing.  She also knew how much she could depend on him, every single day. And she did.

Isabelle loved all of that (and nearly everything else) about her dear “Harold-i,” and how we all loved that about her!

Isabelle will rest now, in peace, beside the red barn, in the garden and the place she loved and tended so very long and well.  A job well done.   Many, many of us will always miss her.



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