[Skip to Content]
[Skip to Content Landing]
February 1, 1985

The 'Terrible' Question

Author Affiliations

Los Angeles

JAMA. 1985;253(5):641. doi:10.1001/jama.1985.03350290043025

This article is only available in the PDF format. Download the PDF to view the article, as well as its associated figures and tables.


The wide-eyed and fearful expression on the face of the 68-year-old, heavy-set Russian immigrant did not betray any hidden secret as she sat across from my office desk while I read the hand-scribed physician's prescription, on which was written: "Please examine Mrs G. for a 1:16 serologic test for syphilis. It is probably a biologic false-positive test."

Mrs G. appeared worn and tired, although her graying hair was covered with a brightly colored babushka. Her stout physical habitus and plain, though not unattractive, appearance was strikingly similar to that of my own grandmother, who had died during my childhood. Both were poor, unschooled Russian peasants who, despite their humble origins, maintained a special dignity in their bearing and demeanor.

Given the fact that my grandmother had fled Russian pogroms and my grandfather came to America to avoid conscription into the Czar's army, there was an instinctive identification with, and special