During the Great Depression, public higher education expanded in New York City to serve the children of its immigrant working class. The 1930s saw the founding of Queens and Brooklyn Colleges, and construction of the campus that later became Lehman. Tuition remained free, thanks in part to student protests at City College.
One of the many beneficiaries of these far-sighted decisions was George Scherr, the son of poor Ukranian immigrants who toiled in the garment industry. A member of Queens College’s original graduating class in 1941, he returned to the campus for its 2011 commencement, which honored Scherr and eight other members of the Class of ’41.
After graduating from Queens, Scherr became a medical researcher, the head of a multi-million dollar company and the longtime publisher of The Journal of Irreproducible Results, a science humor magazine. He spoke with Clarion this summer after returning from a business trip to India, reflecting on his life and what it meant to come of age at a time when culture and education were made available free to the working people of New York City.
Starting with the Letter “A”
I grew up near a public library at 156th and Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx. Books to me were a golden opportunity. I used to live in that library.
I decided I couldn’t miss a good book. So I walked among the stacks in the library until I got to “A,” and started taking out one book after the other so I wouldn’t miss anything – which was silly, since obviously you never get past the A’s.
Music for the People
Mayor LaGuardia said poor people in New York City should be able to enjoy music, so we had free concerts in Central Park and every week at the Brooklyn Museum. He took over one of the opera halls so people could see grand opera for a quarter. In fact, he turned trucks loose that brought entertainers into the side streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to sing and give performances.
You wouldn’t believe this, but as a child I sat in public school class listening to the Metropolitan Opera House tenor singing to us. He was sent by the mayor to go around the schools and expose children to music.
Queens College, Day 1
When we started at Queens College, not all of the classes were ready. So we sat on the grass outside with a bulletin board propped up with a chair.
They really picked some of the best people they could get to staff Queens College in its opening years. Some of them had international reputations. I took lots of courses that diverged from my interest in the sciences – some of them mandated – and this helped enormously later on: courses on how government works at all levels, ancient history, language, speech. I took a course in music appreciation although I didn’t play an instrument. I just liked music. This kind of broad education has an enormous advantage as you mature. When you’re young, you often don’t know what you’re going to be doing in 15 or 20 years.
I served as a Morse Code instructor in the Army during the War. Afterwards, I got my master’s  and my PhD  in microbiology from the University of Kentucky – without having to pay a dime, thanks to the military.
A Lifetime of Innovation
My research has focused on how to kill dangerous bacteria without harming the patient. I currently hold 100 patents. My first one was for a small device that made it easier to gauge which antibiotic to give to a patient. I currently have a patent pending for a solution to post-surgical infections that occur when people have prosthetic body parts installed, like an artificial knee or hip. Too many infections are taking place, and that’s very serious because you have to go in surgically and take the whole thing out to start again.
According to biomedical scholars, we can live to 120 years and be reasonably intact. Next month I’m going to stop doing all research to write another book and probably do some painting.
I’ve never been sick. My knees are going, and I’ve got a couple of arthritic knobs poking at my back, but I work every day. As long as I can think, I can go on working.