A few years ago, my mom developed rheumatoid arthritis. Her wrists, knees and toes swelled up, causing crippling, chronic pain. She had to file for disability. She stopped attending our local mosque. Some mornings it was too painful for her to brush her teeth. I wanted to help. But I didn't know how. I'm not a doctor.
So, what I am is a historian of medicine. So I started to research the history of chronic pain. Turns out, UCLA has an entire history of pain collection in their archives. And I found a story — a fantastic story — of a man who saved — rescued — millions of people from pain; people like my mom. Yet, I had never heard of him. There were no biographies of him, no Hollywood movies. His name was John J. Bonica. But when our story begins, he was better known as Johnny "Bull" Walker.
It was a summer day in 1941. The circus had just arrived in the tiny town of Brookfield, New York. Spectators flocked to see the wire-walkers, the tramp clowns — if they were lucky, the human cannonball. They also came to see the strongman, Johnny "Bull" Walker, a brawny bully who'd pin you for a dollar. You know, on that particular day, a voice rang out over the circus P.A. system. They needed a doctor urgently, in the live animal tent. Something had gone wrong with the lion tamer. The climax of his act had gone wrong, and his head was stuck inside the lion's mouth. He was running out of air; the crowd watched in horror as he struggled and then passed out. When the lion finally did relax its jaws, the lion tamer just slumped to the ground, motionless. When he came to a few minutes later, he saw a familiar figure hunched over him. It was Bull Walker. The strongman had given the lion tamer mouth-to-mouth, and saved his life.
Now, the strongman hadn't told anyone, but he was actually a third-year medical student. He toured with the circus during summers to pay tuition, but kept it a secret to protect his persona. He was supposed to be a brute, a villain — not a nerdy do-gooder. His medical colleagues didn't know his secret, either. As he put it, "If you were an athlete, you were a dumb dodo." So he didn't tell them about the circus, or about how he wrestled professionally on evenings and weekends. He used a pseudonym like Bull Walker, or later, the Masked Marvel. He even kept it a secret that same year, when he was crowned the Light Heavyweight Champion of the world.
Over the years, John J. Bonica lived these parallel lives. He was a wrestler; he was a doctor. He was a heel; he was a hero. He inflicted pain, and he treated it. And he didn’t know it at the time, but over the next five decades, he'd draw on these dueling identities to forge a whole new way to think about pain. It'd change modern medicine so much so, that decades later, Time magazine would call him pain relief's founding father. But that all happened later.
In 1942, Bonica graduated medical school and married Emma, his sweetheart, whom he had met at one of his matches years before. He still wrestled in secret — he had to. His internship at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital paid nothing. With his championship belt, he wrestled in big-ticket venues, like Madison Square Garden, against big-time opponents, like Everett "The Blonde Bear" Marshall, or three-time world champion, Angelo Savoldi.
The matches took a toll on his body; he tore hip joints, fractured ribs. One night, The Terrible Turk's big toe scratched a scar like Capone's down the side of his face. The next morning at work, he had to wear a surgical mask to hide it. Twice Bonica showed up to the O.R. with one eye so bruised, he couldn't see out of it. But worst of all were his mangled cauliflower ears. He said they felt like two baseballs on the sides of his head. Pain just kept accumulating in his life.
Next, he watched his wife go into labor at his hospital. She heaved and pushed, clearly in anguish. Her obstetrician called out to the intern on duty to give her a few drops of ether to ease her pain. But the intern was a young guy, just three weeks on the job — he was jittery, and in applying the ether, irritated Emma's throat. She vomited and choked, and started to turn blue. Bonica, who was watching all this, pushed the intern out of the way, cleared her airway, and saved his wife and his unborn daughter. At that moment, he decided to devote his life to anesthesiology. Later, he'd even go on to help develop the epidural, for delivering mothers. But before he could focus on obstetrics, Bonica had to report for basic training.
Right around D-Day, Bonica showed up to Madigan Army Medical Center, near Tacoma. At 7,700 beds, it was one of the largest army hospitals in America. Bonica was in charge of all pain control there. He was only 27. Treating so many patients, Bonica started noticing cases that contradicted everything he had learned. Pain was supposed to be a kind of alarm bell — in a good way — a body's way of signaling an injury, like a broken arm. But in some cases, like after a patient had a leg amputated, that patient might still complain of pain in that nonexistent leg. But if the injury had been treated, why would the alarm bell keep ringing? There were other cases in which there was no evidence of an injury whatsoever, and yet, still the patient hurt.
Bonica tracked down all the specialists at his hospital — surgeons, neurologists, psychiatrists, others. And he tried to get their opinions on his patients. It took too long, so he started organizing group meetings over lunch. It would be like a tag team of specialists going up against the patient's pain. No one had ever focused on pain this way before.
After that, he hit the books. He read every medical textbook he could get his hands on, carefully noting every mention of the word "pain." Out of the 14,000 pages he read, the word "pain" was on 17 and a half of them. Seventeen and a half. For the most basic, most common, most frustrating part of being a patient. Bonica was shocked — I'm quoting him, he said, "What the hell kind of conclusion can you come to there? The most important thing from the patient's perspective, they don't talk about."
So over the next eight years, Bonica would talk about it. He'd write about it; he'd write those missing pages. He wrote what would later be known as the Bible of Pain. In it he proposed new strategies, new treatments using nerve-block injections. He proposed a new institution, the Pain Clinic, based on those lunchtime meetings. But the most important thing about his book was that it was kind of an emotional alarm bell for medicine. A desperate plea to doctors to take pain seriously in patients' lives. He recast the very purpose of medicine. The goal wasn't to make patients better; it was to make patients feel better. He pushed his pain agenda for decades, before it finally took hold in the mid-'70s. Hundreds of pain clinics sprung up all over the world.
But as they did — a tragic twist. Bonica's years of wrestling caught up to him. He had been out of the ring for over 20 years, but those 1,500 professional bouts had left a mark on his body. Still in his mid-50s, he suffered severe osteoarthritis. Over the next 20 years he'd have 22 surgeries, including four spine operations, and hip replacement after hip replacement. He could barely raise his arm, turn his neck. He needed aluminum crutches to walk. His friends and former students became his doctors. One recalled that he probably had more nerve-block injections than anyone else on the planet. Already a workaholic, he worked even more — 15- to 18-hour days. Healing others became more than just his job, it was his own most effective form of relief. "If I wasn't as busy as I am," he told a reporter at the time, "I would be a completely disabled guy."
On a business trip to Florida in the early 1980s, Bonica got a former student to drive him to the Hyde Park area in Tampa. They drove past palm trees and pulled up to an old mansion, with giant silver howitzer cannons hidden in the garage. The house belonged to the Zacchini family, who were something like American circus royalty. Decades earlier, Bonica had watched them, clad in silver jumpsuits and goggles, doing the act they pioneered — the Human Cannonball. But now they were like him: retired. That generation is all dead now, including Bonica, so there's no way to know exactly what they said that day. But still, I love imagining it. The strongman and the human cannonballs reunited, showing off old scars, and new ones. Maybe Bonica gave them medical advice. Maybe he told them what he later said in an oral history, which is that his time in the circus and wrestling deeply molded his life.
Bonica saw pain close up. He felt it. He lived it. And it made it impossible for him to ignore in others. Out of that empathy, he spun a whole new field, played a major role in getting medicine to acknowledge pain in and of itself.
In that same oral history, Bonica claimed that pain is the most complex human experience. That it involves your past life, your current life, your interactions, your family. That was definitely true for Bonica.
But it was also true for my mom. It's easy for doctors to see my mom as a kind of professional patient, a woman who just spends her days in waiting rooms. Sometimes I get stuck seeing her that same way. But as I saw Bonica's pain — a testament to his fully lived life — I started to remember all the things that my mom's pain holds. Before they got swollen and arthritic, my mom's fingers clacked away in the hospital H.R. department where she worked. They folded samosas for our entire mosque. When I was a kid, they cut my hair, wiped my nose, tied my shoes.