Lindbergh's other legacy

Inside the famous aviator's provocative scientific quest.

(Fortune Magazine) -- It's odd to recommend another book about Charles A. Lindbergh if there's still a copy of A. Scott Berg's wonderful 1999 biography somewhere on the planet. But Berg's Lindbergh is 640 pages long, and it presupposes a deep interest in its titular subject. David M. Friedman's The Immortalists (Knopf, $26.95) is less than half that length, but, more to the point, it gives you Lindbergh in the provocative context suggested by its title and spelled out in its subtitle: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.

The only off-note in the subtitle is "daring." The collaboration that the autodidact Lindbergh conducted in the 1930s with a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon was many things -- presumptuous, groundbreaking, a little bit mad -- but I wouldn't count "daring" among them. In his work with Carrel, Lindbergh found shelter from a world he had come to loathe. The sorrow is that he also found confirmation of his most insidious instincts.

What Lindbergh brought to Carrel's lab at the Rockefeller Institute in Manhattan was the intuitive genius of the born engineer. Carrel, who had won his Nobel for pioneering work on the transplantation of blood vessels, dreamed of a future in which the human body became, writes Friedman, "a machine with constantly reparable or replaceable parts." Working with the institute's trained technicians, Lindbergh invented something they had not been able to create on their own: an effective perfusion pump that could keep a detached organ -- a thyroid, a kidney, maybe someday a heart -- alive outside the body. The pump that Lindbergh devised (and wrote about in respectable scientific papers) was the Model T in a technological progression that eventually led to the heart-lung machine and the lifesaving wonders of modern cardiac surgery.

What Carrel provided his protégé -- in addition to refuge from the hateful press (Lindbergh called them "human monkeys with flashbulbs") and comfort after the murder of his baby son -- was a theory to justify Lindbergh's view of himself as a superior being. Man of science Carrel may have been, but he was also a mystic, an egomaniac, and a eugenicist. He believed not only that the world was divided into superior and inferior individuals, but also that it was the duty of the "best strains" to use science to dominate, and someday eliminate through selective breeding, the "lesser strains." Civilization, Carrel said, "is already encumbered with those who should be dead: the weak, the diseased, and the fools." Those life-extending organs that would be kept alive by Lindbergh's perfusion pump were meant not for all humans, but for the elect.

You see where this is going. When Lindbergh began the flirtation with the Nazis that quickly mutated into a full-fledged swoon, he had Carrel's eugenicist "science" on his side. (Carrel himself, like most Frenchmen who had served in World War I, despised the Germans, eugenics be damned.) Lindbergh's language was pocked with such phrases as "inferior blood," the "Asiatic intruder," the "treasures of the White race." His ugly anti-Semitism, which emerged in his isolationist "America first" campaign in the months before Pearl Harbor, had the same intellectual (if you can call it that) roots: the belief that some men and some races were born to rule.

Eventually Lindbergh repented. Visiting a Nazi slave labor camp at the end of the war, he encountered the consequences of the "scientific" classification of human beings according to their utility. It was proof, writes Friedman, that the false idol of science was capable of seducing its practitioners into "the ultimate blasphemy: thinking of themselves as gods." Top of page