Herbert Ratner: Apostle of the Culture of Life

COMMENTARY: The life of the Catholic convert and physician serves as a model for a world that is in critical need of moral guidance and personal heroism.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Herbert Ratner was the youngest of seven children, born May 23, 1907, in New York City to Jewish-Russian immigrants. His father, a socialist who had no use for religion, named him after the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who is best remembered for his expression “the survival of the fittest.” He would have been prescient had he named his son Thomas, after St. Thomas Aquinas. Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.

Herbert did inherit from his father a love for medicine and earned his M.D. from the University of Michigan in 1935. While in Ann Arbor, he met and subsequently married Dorothy Smith, a fellow medical student and the daughter of a farm family of 12 children.

From 1934 to 1936, Herb and Dorothy were research assistants at the University of Michigan. Herb studied public health and, in his off hours, took courses in philosophy. The harmonious interface between medicine and philosophy was to be a lifelong preoccupation for him.

In 1937, Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, appointed Ratner as senior member of the Committee of Liberal Arts. There, he did research on the history of medicine as an assistant to Mortimer Adler, the founder of the Great Books program.

Adler, who was a Thomist, spearheaded a re-examination of the classical thinkers, particularly Aristotle and Aquinas. Impressed with the philosophy of Aquinas, many became attracted to the Catholic Church.

In 1938, Herb converted to Catholicism and remained a faithful and devoted member of the Church throughout his life. He was a longtime and active member of the Chicago Catholic Physicians Guild and served as the president of the Catholic Medical Association.

Having studied Aristotle and Aquinas, he realized all the more clearly the essential role of nature, not only for medicine, but also for the family.

In an article entitled, “The Family: Nature’s Institution,” he pays homage to what the great Thomist and historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson said of St. Thomas’ thinking:

“The central intuition which governs the whole philosophical and theological undertaking of St. Thomas is that it is impossible to do justice to God without doing justice to nature, and that doing justice to nature is at the same time the surest way of doing justice to God.”

Thus nature was a vicar general (or God’s representative in the natural order). And just as the vicar is of one mind with his superior, so, too, nature has a similar relationship with her Creator. In an address to members of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars in 1988, Ratner told his audience, “The notion of nature as a vicar general is a realistic and dynamic concept of nature which recognizes man as an integral part of biological nature and the universe ‘tied within the divine mind by an indissoluble knot.’”

With regard to the family, he stated: “The battle for the survival of the family centers in good part around the explication of the family as a natural institution communicating nature’s wisdom with its inherent power to persuade human reason and free choice.”

It was not surprising, therefore, that Ratner would have much to say about the natural benefits of breast-feeding. His most treasured quotation on the naturalness of breast-feeding is borrowed from the jurist Oliver Wendell Homes: “A pair of mammary glands are more advantageous in the art of compounding a nutritive fluid for infants than the two hemispheres of the most learned professor’s brain.”

For Ratner, the appropriate gifts that nature has bestowed on the mother cannot be stressed enough. Nature endows the mother with smooth skin, a soprano voice, cradle arms and the intuitive ability to understand the natural language of infant facial expressions. Ratner was a senior adviser to the La Leche League from its inception and for more than 40 years.

In his tribute to Dr. Ratner, his longtime friend and associate and fellow M.D., Dr. Eugene Diamond, affirmed that Herb “was that rarest of personalities, a true intellectual who was at the same time warm, approachable and witty.”

The latter virtue predominated on many occasions. I recall being on a bus with him while he was entertaining everyone with one-liners: “Have you heard about the romance between the Tower of London and the Leaning Tower of Pisa? He had the time, and she had the inclination.” Then I would hear him say, in Henny Youngman-like fashion, “I’m not getting a laugh; can you all hear me?”

I found him to be most approachable. He was delighted when I mentioned to him that “nature is the home team, and the home team bats last,” and used it (even crediting me) in subsequent presentations. He was editor of Child and Family Quarterly for 29 years and invited me to serve on the editorial board. The quarterly had broad influence and dealt with a range of topics, including breast-feeding, nutrition, preventative medicine, AIDS (“nature’s retribution”), the side effects of contraception, the value of children and the evils of abortion.

A regular feature, dear to his heart, was “Recent Setbacks in Medicine.” An avid historian, Ratner would reprint such out-of-the-way articles as 17th-century theologian Jeremy Taylor’s “The Duty of Nursing Your Child in Imitation of the Blessed Mother.”

Ratner was always swimming against the popular tide, though his thinking was always well-grounded in nature and good medicine. Critical of how careless Americans were about their health, and more concerned with stating the facts than playing the game, he claimed: “America is the most overmedicated, most over-operated and most over-inoculated country in the world. ... We are flabby and overweight. ... We can’t sleep; we can’t get going when we are awake.”

After serving as public health physician for Oak Park, Illinois, he was dismissed, as he explained to me, allegedly because he was pro-life.

In 1985, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars presented Ratner with the Cardinal Wright Award for embodying the fellowship’s goal of integrating learning and religious faith. At that time, Ratner reiterated that he had dedicated his long career to promoting traditional family values and to the proposition that “children are a gift of nature and a blessing from God.”

Herbert Ratner died Dec. 6, 1997, while he visited his daughter in Cleveland, at the age of 90. We pray that his legacy will endure.

Those who defend life are not always given fair treatment in the secular press. As a result, many persons of courage and character who have committed themselves to the pro-life cause remain relatively unknown, unheralded and unappreciated. These “Apostles of Life” deserve better recognition, since they are excellent role models for a world that is in critical need of moral guidance and personal heroism.

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at

St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.

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