Former Geneseo resident part of Cold War history

Posted Online: July 12, 2014, 9:43 pm
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By Stephen Elliott,

GENESEO -- In the mid-1950s, the imminent threat of nuclear war weighed heavily on the minds not only of civilians, but of government officials.

Men like Nicholas Kefalides already had experienced war, living through it as a teenager in World War II in his native Greece. At one point, he and his brother, Chris, spent time in a German concentration camp.

He knew what war could do to a country and its people. He'd seen friends and family taken away, never to be heard from again.

But, Nicholas Kefalides survived, and he dreamed of greatness.

He would come to America in 1947. He would eventually land in Geneseo, attend Augustana College, and become a pioneer in the medical field when it came to the treatment of burn patients, something the U.S. government focused research on.

If there ever was an example of living the American Dream, his life would would be Exhibit A, said his son, Dr. Paul Kefalides, of Santa Rosa, Calif.

The Cold War

After World War II and the Korean War, Americans faced another war in the 1950s, commonly known as the Cold War.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called for a policy of massive retaliation in the event of nuclear attack. The government estimated millions would die.

As President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led their respective sides, school children practiced disaster drills; black and yellow fallout shelter signs marked county courthouses, municipal buildings and many private buildings as well.

World leaders were trying to find any advantage they could in the case of nuclear war.

Mr. Kefalides would become part of the Cold War story.

A pioneer in the medical field

Nicholas Kefalides grew up in Greece.

After World War II, he arrived in America and went to live with an uncle in Evanston, Ill. His uncle was a doctor. Mr. Kefalides was determined to pursue his own career in medicine and biochemistry.

Around this time, Jane Kutsunis, who grew up in Geneseo, was attending Northwestern University.

"I met Nick there," Jane said recently. "He had just come over from Greece. His uncle was a plastic surgeon on Michigan Avenue.

"My family had very Greek ideas on whom I should marry. There were a lot of Greek kids in the Quad-Cities area. My mother would talk to other Greek mothers."

But, Jane Kutsunis had someone else in mind when it came to spending a life together.

"Not only was he (Mr. Kefalides) good looking, he was very bright," she said from her home in suburban Philadelphia. "I said, 'this looks good to me.'"

Jane Kutsunis and Nicholas Kefalides married on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 1949, in Geneseo.

Mr. Kefalides moved to Geneseo to live with Jane, and her family, which included her younger brother, George Kutsunis.

George Kutsunis said his brother-in-law detasseled corn and worked construction while attending Augustana College.

"I was just a kid when he moved here," George Kutsunis said. "He was a very smart guy. He excelled in science.

"The rest is history."

Mr. Kefalides graduated from Augustana College in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. He then went on to the University of Illinois, receiving concurrently his master's degree in biochemistry and medical degree in 1956.

In 1957, Mr. Kefalides was commissioned by President Dwight Eisenhower to the U.S. Public Health Service with the rank of lieutenant or surgeon. Mr. Kefalides joined the National Institutes of Health, and along with Jane, traveled to Lima, Peru.

Mr. Kefalides' mission was to direct a research project in Peru's capital related to treating burn patients. In a memoir he had written called, "Finding Aesculapius Across the Atlantic," he explained, "In the defense department's war scenarios, the prospects for "surviving" a nuclear exchange depended in part on the medical resources that would remain available following such an attack."

The work would help the U.S. government in treating burn victims in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

"Our lives were uncomplicated in many ways," Ms. Kefalides said. "I was dragged kicking and screaming to Peru. But, it was three of the most wonderful years of my life there."

Dr. Paul Kefalides said the standard care at the time was to resuscitate patients with human plasma, which was derived from blood donations. It was expensive.

"The research project sought to determine if simple intravenous saline solution could be used in burn patients and be just as effective," Dr. Paul Kefalides said. "The research also focused on the benefit of prophylactic antibiotics in burn patients, which was found to decrease mortality."

Dr. Nicholas Kefalides' work was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

After coming home, Nicholas Kefalides' work continued as an academic physician and scientist at the University of Chicago.

In 1970, Dr. Kefalides began his career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he would remain.

According to the University of Pennsylvania Almanac, "Dr. Kefalides was a pioneer in the study of the extracellular matrix-components of the body that fill the space between structured cells.

"He identified three novel components of the matrix, including a new subtype of collagen, which he labeled Type IV."

His son said his father's identification of the Type IV collagen molecule led to an explosion of research on different types of collagen molecules. He said his father's work, "has been valuable for understanding many disease conditions such as kidney and lung diseases, how viral infections spread and how cancer cells metastasize."

Nicholas Kefalides also lectured throughout the world and taught medical students and graduate students in biological sciences. With his work, Mr. Kefalides received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1977, an Honorary Doctorate degree from the University of Reims, France in 1987, and was a Visiting Professor at Oxford University, England, from 1977-78 and 1984-85.

Dr. Nicholas Kefalides died Dec. 6 from pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 86.

"We had a great life together," Ms. Kefalides said recently.

Paul Kefalides said his father worked hard, was grateful for what he had and loved America for the opportunity it offered as well as for its culture and modernity.

"I think he felt at home during the years he spent in Geneseo," his son said. "Because, the values and routines of that agricultural community in Illinois were reminiscent of the style of life he recalled from his childhood in rural Greece.

"I think he is a good example of what we call our "Greatest Generation."


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