I LEARNED about orchids from Dr. Arturo B. Rotor. I met him because he was the husband of an Assumption College teacher, Emma Unson Rotor. Mrs. Rotor was a teacher of higher mathematics, a subject I stayed away from, knowing my non-quantitative mind. But I had her in geography, and she was great. Mrs. Rotor as a mathematician had worked in the Manhattan Project, the secret project that produced the atomic bomb. This was at the time of no computers or calculators, at most just adding machines.
Many years after college, I met her again on the golf course at the Manila Golf Club and we played golf together for years. That is when Dr. Rotor came into my life. Actually, into the life of my husband and me. He was a medical doctor who used to play tennis but in retirement, he and his wife moved to Makati and switched to golf. This was in the late 1960s.
They had no children but were very comfortable with young people. They had dogs and a garden full of orchids, which Dr. Rotor attended to personally and intensively. When I moved to Mandaluyong, the garden of my house had an epiphyte (an air plant) clinging to a tree which had small maroon flowers which I had never seen. I consulted Dr. Rotor and he identified it as a vanilla plant, which is an orchid.
Subsequently, I learned the following about Dr. Rotor. He was born in Manila in 1907. He had a degree in medicine from the University of the Philippines, and another degree from the UP Conservatory of Music, having undertaken both studies simultaneously. He played the piano for silent films. He also took up the post of medical doctor at the Iwahig Penal Colony in Mindanao for a time. When he was at UP, he wrote some of the finest short stories in English of his generation. The first collection was The Wound and the Scar and was the first publication of the Philippine Book Guild. His next collection was The Men Who Play God; I have the Ateneo University Press 1980 edition. There may have been an earlier one. Eventually, he became a Manila Times columnist writing the column, "Confidentially Doctor." But before that he was editor of the Philippines Herald Midweek Magazine. He also became the editor of Acta Medica Philippina. These were activities (except for the weekly column) of a life before I was born, before World War 2 came to the Philippines.
None of the above was told to me by Dr. Rotor. He only told me two things about himself: there was an orchid named after him, Vanda merrillii var. rotorii, and an allergic condition named Rotor syndrome that he was the first to discover and describe. He was modest to the extreme and told me about the orchid and the disease at the end of his life as the most satisfying accomplishments he would talk about.
But there was more to Dr. Rotor. He and his wife were in Baltimore for higher studies (at Johns Hopkins University) when WW2 broke out. Subsequently he joined or was recruited (he never went into detail) to the Philippine government in exile under President Manuel Quezon. He became Quezon's private secretary and was eventually appointed executive secretary and was in the wartime Philippine cabinet. He came back to the Philippines with President Sergio Osmeña and General Douglas MacArthur in 1944 and was briefly the director of health of the Commonwealth after the war. Eventually, he became the dean of the Postgraduate School of Medicine of UP and taught in the school for 20 years. He also practiced medicine all the years of his life until retirement. He wrote a Tacloban Diary of his experience in Leyte with the liberating forces and personal memoirs about his experience in the wartime cabinet. These papers were supposed to go to the Ateneo University after his death for editing and eventual publication. And I know for a fact that Mr. and Mrs. Rotor left their estate to Assumption and Ateneo. Education was both a career and a passion.
Through that vanilla orchid, Dr. Rotor led me to appreciate and eventually become passionate about Philippine orchids. Together we filled my garden with native species of which there are many endemic to the Philippines. Finally, we both agreed that the challenge was to get the waling-waling. It was Dr. Rotor who found it for me in Los Baños. It was a notably festive day when he established it in my garden. His memory lives with it here.
I think back to the beautiful lives of Dr. and Mrs. Rotor, accomplished teachers, highly knowledgeable and cultured (Dr. Rotor played the piano, wrote music criticism). He was a contemporary of Jose Garcia Villa, Paz Latorena, Loreto Paras, acclaimed as an outstanding Filipino short story writer. In 1966, he was given the Republic Heritage Award for his writing. But he said there were writers who were more deserving of it. Bienvenido Santos, the Filipino fiction writer, was a friend of long-standing who wrote the introduction to Confidentially Doctor, a collection of the columns he wrote for The Manila Times, quoting insightful and reflective passages of a letter to him by Dr. Rotor while in Tacloban during the liberation of the Philippines, and talking about the human essentials — life and death. I managed to get copies of The Men Who Play God and Confidentially Doctor (Phoenix Publishing, 1965), but The Wound and the Scar should be reprinted. The Rotors are markers of my life. Mrs. Rotor, Emma Unson, was a daughter of the Commonwealth Secretary of Finance, Miguel Unson. Once she told me casually that her father had a government car assigned to him, which none of his children ever had a ride on. I remember the modesty and simple lives of these long-gone friends with appreciation for having met them. We had many social encounters that I remember as the joy of times and people past. They are my beautiful memories of teachers, doctors, musicians, writers, government officials, who aspired to excel in their fields without the compulsion for attention or adulation, wealth or power. These are Filipinos who were nation-builders, would that we wake up to what they were, what they meant and what they left us with and do the same.
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Note: Re Henry Sander of Vanda sanderiana fame (complete name: Henry Frederick Conrad Sander) that I mentioned last week as having first publicized the waling-waling. He was originally a German but came to Britain (1847-1920) and became a horticulturist who had 20 orchid plant collectors in South and Central America, New Guinea, Myanmar and Malaysia between 1881 and 1907. The Philippines must have been in one of these categories because the waling-waling was collected from Mindanao in 1882, and he as a plant collector acquired, publicized and used it in hybridization (he had the most important 19th century orchid nursery in England, which he passed on to his sons). He collaborated with the Viennese botanist, Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach, in publishing Reichenbachia: Orchids Illustrated and Described, the famous and pioneering four-volume book on orchids (he said doing so virtually ruined him).