By Philip E. Jenks
June 28, 2016. When Dr. Robert E. Hingson drove from his home in Georgia to visit the American Baptist national offices in 1987, he filled the trunk of his car with walnuts. He handed them out to everyone he saw, praising their health benefits and bragging about the special deliciousness of this particular Georgia variety.
Hingson, the inventor of the jet inoculator that helped protect millions throughout the world from dread diseases like small pox and polio, had accepted my invitation for an interview for an article in The American Baptist Magazine.
Naturally, I expected to fly down to Georgia to see him, but Hingson insisted on driving up himself. He said he hadn’t seen the circular offices of American Baptist Churches USA in years, and he was eager to see his old friend Chester J. Jump, Jr., who had been head of the American Baptist International Ministries.
He was probably the lowest-maintenance celebrity ever to visit the ABC offices. He turned down offers for rides, found his way to his hotel room, and spent hours talking with the communication staff.
He never stopped smiling. He had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and seemed to be observing the progress of his illness with cool detachment. At one point he picked up the jet inoculator to show us how it worked. “Look,” he said. “I can’t move my index finger anymore. Last week I could. That’s interesting.” Hingson died of the disease in October 1996.
In his last decade, many of Hingson’s Baptist friends thought the millions of lives he had helped save made him an appropriate candidate for the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Each year we wrote letters to the Nobel committee and solicited the support of other Laureates, but it never happened.
Tragically, the jet inoculator – so useful for protecting millions from scores of epidemic diseases – could not be prevented from inadvertently passing along the HIV virus. The tool – Hingson liked to call it “the peace gun” – was quickly abandoned around the world.
Still, it helped save millions while it was used. Hingson did not win the Nobel Prize, and I didn’t even think his obituary in the Times did him justice.
It can’t be denied that he is one of the great pioneers of modern medicine. In 1987, we tried to tell his story in such a way as to capture both his scientific inventiveness and deep Christian faith.