Birdman of Alcatraz – The Story of Robert Stroud
An almost forgotten novel about a very complicated, interesting, driven, and brilliant man. While this book is dated by today’s standards, originally released in 1955, it is very well written. This book provides a look into the history of the USA Penal System and into the remarkable but tragic life of Robert Stroud.
Robert Stroud was convicted of murder in Alaska at 18 years of age and he murdered again, a prison guard, when he was incarcerated. I will leave it to each reader to judge him on those counts. That is only part of the tragedy of his life. This man, with only a grade three education, self taught himself numerous fields of science, e.g., Biology, Ornithology, Hematology, Avian Pathology, etc. With very poor equipment, and facilities, i.e., he was kept in solitary confinement in prison for over half of his life; he discovered a cure for some of the worst avian plagues known to man. Plagues for which there was no cure at that time. His cures saved countless pet birds and his specifics/remedies had a huge impact on farm poultry populations saving farmers millions of dollars a year.
A Robert Niemi states that Stroud had a "superior intellect," and became a "first-rate ornithologist and author," but was an "extremely dangerous and menacing psychopath, disliked and distrusted by his jailers and fellow inmates. In February 1943, Bertha Hayden, a Minneapolis bird breeder wrote, (reference page 180) “Robert Stroud is worth to the poultry industry hundreds of thousands of dollars in food and money saved. Yet he is prevented from doing his great work by a prison bureau which is supposed to be humanitarian.” Late in 1943, ‘Stroud’s Digest of the Diseases of Birds’ was published by the Webb Publishing Company. The digest caused a sensation in the cage-bird world. It was favorably reviewed in avian journals. Two of the reviews were written by college professors.
Even if only half of the facts that the author includes in this book were true regarding the withholding of evidence, mistrials, poor treatment of Stroud while incarcerated and generally how he was treated by the courts and by the US Penal System, truly Stroud’s treatment is a very embarrassing period in the USA. One judge late in Stroud’s life declared his 43 years in solidarity as illegal and unconstitutional; even that ruling did not get him released from prison.
In the movie Birdman of Alcatraz, one doctor describes Stroud something like this – “the public would not be happy if they knew how the US Government was keeping this brilliant man under lock and key. He should not be working on cures for bird diseases; he should be working on cures for diseases for the benefit of mankind.” What might he have done for mankind if he had ever been allowed freedom to work in a well equipped laboratory, supported by highly educated and trained scientists? Regretfully, we will never know.
I have seen the movie Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) perhaps three times; in fact, now I own it on DVD. It stars Burt Lancaster supported by Karl Malden, Telly Savalas and Thelma Ritter. It is simply superb. There is only one copy of this book left in the Library system in Ottawa. I highly recommend this book and the movie to my contemporaries and anyone over 20 years of age. Senior Doctor-at-Bass! D. A.
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