SARATOGA SPRINGS – Some people, no matter what their age, longingly miss school. They loved the give-and-take between student peers on controversial topics; enjoyed (respectfully) challenging their professors’ published works; and would attend every lecture enthusiastically on topics that made other students’ eyes glaze over.
Back in the Roaring ‘20’s heyday, William Bullock knew a handful of people just like that, all afflicted with an unshakable curiosity about the world and everything in it. While everyone else was doing the Charleston, he formed the first Torch Club on June 18, 1924 a place where lifelong learners could satisfy their inner three-year-old that perpetually asked the question, “why?”
Bullock’s vision of an Association of Torch Clubs expanded across the country over the ensuing decades with a purpose of broadening intellectual and social horizons. Today, nearly 70 Torch clubs across the United States and Canada meet regularly to hear and discuss cross-profession presentations.
The newly formed Saratoga Torch Club held its second meeting on Thursday, January 14 at the Holiday Inn on Broadway. About 25 people were there, anticipating the presentation by their group president, Gerald Stulc, MD, a retired cancer surgeon and naval reserves captain (06). Stulc is also a lifelong history buff, and with World War I helmets and a leather gas mask before him, Stulc described to the group a history of medical advances that stemmed from the “shot heard around the world.”
Stulc described the difference between shock and shell-shock (also known as the Thousand Yard Stare). One was a loss of blood, which had previously been thought to be a symptom rather than cause, and the other was the early diagnosis for what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were surprised to hear that PTSD was taken quite seriously in WWI, given the struggles military victims of PTSD have gone through for recognition and help in modern times. In December of 1914, 10 percent of WWI officers had shell shock, and 40 percent of casualties of the Battle of Somme had shell shock. According to Stulc, neurophysiology led physicians to attribute shell shock to the effect high explosives had on nerves and brains.
For the cost of a dinner and drinks, and a nominal annual membership fee, Saratoga’s Torch Club members spent a collegial evening learning about the first attempts at blood transfusion and blood banking, chest surgeries, vaccination, and the unintended consequences of gas warfare science. Thousands of men and horses died from mustard gas, but science learned from their horrors and created the first chemotherapeutic agents against cancer from those tragic consequences.
Torch Club members relish dinner conversations that explore the uncomfortable, like poking a tongue into a nagging tooth to test the level of pain. They explore solutions to controversial issues, relax over shared stories of local entertainment or the arts, and spend quality time enjoying the company of good souls who like to learn what makes the world tick.
A Torch Club adds to the educational opportunities within a community, encouraging member presenters to write and submit a paper on their favorite topics for Torch publication. Torch Club Vice President Francis Moul said, "Outside of university classrooms, this may be one of the best places in our nation for this sort of dialogue and stimulation."
Torch club members tend to be quite open-minded. A scientist is able to debate the side of creationism; a teacher can sit back and let someone else lead the teaching; a social justice author can enjoy hearing about the hedonism of Hollywood’s Golden Age. This is a group that values intellectual stimulation and the freedom to delve into probing questions and participate in a thoughtful exchange of ideas. This is the core of Torch.