Leo Vroman: a life of science, peril and romance
At 97, he reflects on his careers as a researcher, poet and artist before a new exhibit of his work
In an exhiblit called Connections: Art, Poetry and Science, Leo Vroman’s science-related art will be on display November 12 through the end of March in Elsevier’s Radarweg building in Amsterdam. The exhibit will include his drawings, photographs, cartoons and computer-generated art based on chaos theory. This image is from his work ‘Just one more World’ (1976).
Leo Vroman, PhD (Photo by Martin Droog, 1988, for the Goudsche Courant, courtesy of the Vroman Foundation)
For many, the worlds of science and the arts belong in different solar systems. Not so for Dr. Leo Vroman, a Dutch-born American citizen who has managed separate careers as a hematology researcher, a poet and an artist/illustrator.
Dr. Vroman’s list of accomplishments include winning nearly every Dutch literary award for poetry; having illustrations and drawings that hang in Dutch museums; a scientific output that includes 69 research papers, many of them published in Elsevier journals; and a discovery named after him: the Vroman Effect. He has also published 60 books, 40 of them on poetry.
Now to honor the 97-year-old Vroman, Elsevier is hosting an exhibit of his science-related art, including drawings, photographs, cartoons, and works from computer programs that generate art based on chaos theory. The exhibit runs from November 12 through the end of March on the 23rd floor of Elsevier’s Radarweg building in Amsterdam. It’s sponsored by the Vroman Foundation and the Letterkundig Museum, which loaned the art.
As part of its preservation remit, the Elsevier Heritage Collection is donating archive space for the art collection. Curated by Ylann Schemm, the Heritage Collection consists of over 2,000 volumes with more than 1000 distinct titles published by the original House of Elzevier from 1580 to 1712.
Dr. Vroman’s daughter, Peggy Vroman-Gracy, pointed out that Elsevier and other science publishers have preserved her father’s research work by digitalizing it. “But we appreciate the Elsevier Heritage Collection taking such an active part in preserving and exhibiting his scientific artwork as well,” she said.
“The connection between science, art and poetry comes very naturally to Leo,” said his granddaughter Noelle Gracy, Director of Community Engagement for Elsevier’s Science and Technology division in Amsterdam. “And that idea — the classic connection between the sciences and the humanities — is something that the foundation was formed to foster.”
Dr. Vroman has lived a life that has been adventurous, romantic and intellectually challenging. Born in the Dutch city of Gouda, Vroman developed an interest in these fields early in life. He remembers drawing a picture of an elephant extinguishing a fire with water from his trunk, and a love of animals, both by the time he was 4.
“I caught a worm and I asked my mother if I could kiss it. She said no. I did anyway,” Dr. Vroman said in a phone interview from his home in Fort Worth, Texas, this week.
His first try at poetry was not much later, prepared for the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, the gift-giving holiday of St. Nicholas in early December when poems are often written to accompany gifts. By his late teens, Vroman was a professional illustrator, doing twice weekly drawings for a friend whose stories were published in a national newspaper.
A young Leo Vroman (from Schriversprentenboek 29, Het Vroman-Effect, 1990)
Vroman studied biology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, but that was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. Vroman, who is Jewish, fled his homeland — a harrowing escape that involved a taxi ride to the coastal city of Scheveningen, where he and others bought a small boat from a fisherman and set off for freedom. They eventually were picked up from the sea by a trawler and brought to London.
Vroman moved to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, to continue his studies. They were again interrupted by World War II. He was drafted into the army of the Dutch East Indies, but was captured by the Japanese and confined to a series of prisoner-of-war camps for much of the war.
Once the war was over and he had recovered from the imprisonment, the Dutch government wanted him to fight, again, this time against the Indonesians who were seeking their independence. Vroman refused. “I told them ‘if you gave me a gun. I will shoot my officer.’ And I meant it,” he said.
The army decided to send him back to Holland, by way of New York. There an uncle and prominent physician, Isidore Snapper, urged him to remain, finding him work in a pathology lab in New Jersey. That launched Vroman’s interest in the study of blood.
Meanwhile Vroman waited to be reunited with his fiancé, Tineke Sanders, a young woman he had met and immediately fallen in love with before the war. She was still in Europe and Snapper this time advised Vroman that he might want to find a woman who was not so far away. “There are many nice women in America,” Snapper suggested.
The young man did not take that advice. Vroman married Sanders on September 10, 1947 — one day after she arrived aboard the Queen Mary.
In the US, Vroman worked as a researcher at various institutes, including the Amerian Museum of Natural History, The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the US Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Brooklyn, and Columbia University. While at Mount Sinai, he conducted research that enabled him to receive his PhD in physiology from Utrecht University.
Naar je atomen (To your atoms); for Peggy, 1980
His discovery, known as the Vroman Effect, describes the specific succession of blood proteins as they move along surfaces — research that provided new insight into blood. The work has influenced research in biomaterials, blood physiology and enzymology.
Vroman says he finds nothing unusual in his interest in arts and sciences. “It seems natural to me; they all seem to be related to each other.”
Vroman’s art is often about science, especially the wonder of biology and the minute processes that make moments of both ordinariness and brilliance possible, as in his poem “All in the Head” from his collection Nee, nog niet dood (No, not dead yet), published by Querido in 2008.
The cause of thought perhaps is
the narrow gates of our synapses
that require a critical mass
Of electrons allowed to pass,
but a few may trigger it, and these
come in quantum quantities
each quantum in a set of states
thereby opening the gates
to double thinking and that might
cause us to realize that light
as particles and waves.
At 97, Dr. Vroman remains active blogging, drawing, computer programing and writing poetry. His artwork was celebrated in Leo Vroman Tekenaar in 2010. His latest book of poetry, Daar (There), was published in 2011 by Querido. And in June, he was presented with the van Creveld Penning Award by the Nederlandse Vereniging van Tromboseen Hemostase (the Dutch Association of Thrombosis and Hemostasis) for his hematology research.
Vroman and his wife Tineke lived for many years in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn before moving to Fort Worth 15 years ago to live near their daughter, Peggy. They have another daughter, Geraldine, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Though he is retired from science now, Dr. Vroman says he has entered a particularly prolific period in poetry, writing every third day as compared to as infrequently as monthly in the past.
“From March of last year to now, I’ve written 210 poems – publishable poems,” he said. ”It is alarming.”
Len Maniace is an Executive Editor for Global Internal Communications at Elsevier. He worked 32 years as a journalist, mostly with Gannett in New York (The Journal News), reporting on science, medicine, environment, health-policy and government, as well as serving as assistant city editor. He later covered breaking news in New York City for the New York Post. Outside of work, he leads an environmental sustainability program for a volunteer, nonprofit group in his New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. He is married and has two sons.