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|Subject: Morris N. Young, eye doctor, collector extraordinaire|
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Date Posted: November 24, 2002 11:05:25 EDT
Dr. Morris N. Young, an ophthalmologist and major collector whose life was framed by the letter M — from medicine to magic to mnemonics to music — died on Nov. 13 in Norwich, Conn. He was 93 and lived in Manhattan.
He was on the way to Worcester, Mass., for a gathering of magicians where he was to be the guest of honor when he suffered a ruptured aneurysm, said his daughter, Cheryl Lesley Young Deknatel.
Dr. Young was a leading collector of books on magic and of artifacts of the magician's trade; books about mnemonics, the formulaic technique used to improve memory; and old sheet music. He was also the author of a dozen books about his passions.
Sometimes Dr. Young's interests merged in odd ways. A lifelong admirer and researcher of Harry Houdini, he used mnemonic theory to interpret the hidden message behind the great magician's home address in Harlem: 278 West 113th Street. He thought it had to mean something, because of Houdini's own passion for mental gymnastics.
Based on a mnemonic system that makes numbers equivalent to consonant sounds and skips the vowels, the solution is "Uncuff We Tie Them." In an article in 2000 in The Mystifier, a publication of the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, Wis., Dr. Young called the Harlem address "worthy of the Handcuff King."
The first important M in Dr. Young's life came shortly after his birth in Lawrence, Mass., on July 20, 1909, when his parents named him Morris Nathan Young.
When Houdini visited town a few years later, young Morris got to shake his hand after Houdini escaped from being hung upside down from Lawrence's tallest building. Thus, M for magic.
By the time young Morris was 17, he had perfected a "cataleptic" act, in the highfalutin terminology preferred by stage magicians. He held his body rigid, with his head and toes balanced on the backs of two chairs. Houdini saw the act and helped him get into the Society of American Magicians.
Dr. Young majored in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to Harvard to earn a master's degree in the same subject. He could not find a job in the depths of the Depression, so his father, who owned a haberdashery, paid his way through medical school at Columbia University.
Magic dictated his choice of specialties, said his son, Charles, also an ophthalmologist. Because of his fascination with sleight-of-hand magic, he was eager to learn everything about how the eyes work.
His quiet, dignified manner in later life was belied by actions like regularly treating the eyes of a trained chicken used in a magic act.
A member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, Dr. Young entered the regular Army in World War II and served in Europe and North Africa, reconstructing the faces of wounded airmen.
He returned to work at a succession of hospitals in Manhattan, and became director of ophthalmology at New York University Downtown Hospital. He met John J. McManus, a lawyer who headed the American operations of Rolls-Royce and worked nearby. They shared an enthusiasm: collecting things magical, mainly books, some dating to the 16th century.
Subjects included ventriloquism, fortune telling, spiritualism, witchcraft, gambling, hypnotism, automata and mind reading.
They gradually found fewer and fewer noteworthy books, and pronounced their enterprise finished. In 1955, they presented a collection of 20,000 items to the Library of Congress.
Dr. Young then turned to collecting books on mnemonics, partly because he thought he could amass the world's biggest collection. He believed he came close, and around 1990 donated his thousands of books on the subject to the University of San Marino in Italy.
The M for music relates to songs, sometimes sheet music and sometimes the actual copyrights, which Dr. Young and his brother Barnard bought from many companies, the most famous of which was the Denton & Haskins Corporation. They owned music by Artie Shaw, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as thousands of songs from the 19th century. Dr. Young donated sheet music for the earlier works to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Methodism was another of Dr. Young's M's. He collected hymn books featuring Methodist songs and donated them to the John Street Methodist Church in Lower Manhattan.
Dr. Young's wife of 54 years, the former Chesley Virginia Barnes, insists that the most important M was marriage. She survives him, as do their daughter, Cheryl Lesley Young Deknatel of Manhattan; their son, Charles, of Russellville, Ark., and five grandchildren.
Dr. and Mrs. Young met in a hotel in Naples, the only building Nazi bombers had left standing. By days, she decoded secret messages and by night she played the piano in the hotel. After her rendition of "Somebody Stole My Gal," Dr. Young introduced himself and told her he owned the song.
They said goodbye and she left for Casablanca to join the North African campaign. Years later in New York City, they met again when she applied for a job with one of his medical colleagues. The mnemonics was her idea.
"It was a magical marriage," she said. "Everything's an M, you see."
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