The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Judge Duncan and the cure

Judge Duncan and the cure

Molly Davis, '90 alumna and staff member in Ohio State's Office of Academic Affairs, writes about Judge Duncan, '48, '52.

Judge Duncan said he had heard that a bar of soap tucked between the bed sheets near your feet alleviates arthritis pain. Any kind of soap works, is the way he heard it.

The Honorable Robert M. Duncan — a federal judge who handed down a desegregation decision for Columbus City Schools, a justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, general counsel at Ohio State and later chair of the university’s board of trustees — was known to have one of the finest minds around. He also was a Renaissance man with a vast array of interests, which gave the soap-cure claim credibility.

Years ago, I had the honor of working for Judge Duncan, and even after I had taken another job, he still included me with his other staff members in wonderful holiday celebrations every December.

A few years ago we were gathered at The Worthington Inn when Judge Duncan told us about the soap cure, which he had heard about from another judge. The cure folded right into our conversation about the economic crisis, politics and updates on what everybody’s kids were doing — the usual range of topics discussed by these long-cherished friends.

At home a few days later, I opened a dresser drawer and noticed a bar of lavender soap nested in my socks. Soap in the socks? Well, yes. I had read an article claiming that soaps outlast sachets, and so I had bought a fragrant bar for each dresser drawer.

Although Judge Duncan never said that he subscribed to — or had even tried — the soap cure, a federal judge just knows things. And so I plucked the bar out of the sock snarl and tucked it under the covers at the foot of the bed, near where Ginger, our English Labrador retriever, sleeps on the floor. Ginger has that stiffness in her hips that often comes to large, old dogs.

I did not mention the soap to my husband, Bill — or to Ginger, for that matter — before we settled in for the night. It would be a blind study, so as not to risk placebo effects.

Around 4 o’clock in the morning, I heard an unfamiliar noise and bolted upright. I softly tapped Bill’s forehead, my usual way of awakening him.

“Something the matter?” he asked. “Strange noise,” I whispered. Bill switched on a light and got out of bed.

“Ginger seems to be eating soap,” he reported. Labrador retrievers are known to eat almost anything, including the bar of soap that we had kicked out of the sheets in our sleep.

Bill and I picked up slivers and shards of soap in silence while Ginger licked the hardwood floor. “I’ll tell you about Judge Duncan’s cure at breakfast,” I said as we settled down for what was left of the night.

Later that morning, in a call to our veterinarian, we were relieved to know that lavender soap would not likely have any toxins that could hurt a dog. No treatment was needed.

On our daily walk about a week later, one of our neighbors remarked, “Ginger seems to have more spring in her step.”

Judge Duncan just couldn’t believe it. We laughed and laughed about the soap cure.

Some time later, I received a call saying that Judge Duncan was in the hospital at Ohio State. I went to see him that day. He and Shirley, his wife of 56 years, were their usual charming, funny and loving selves.

That was the last time I saw my beloved adviser and cherished friend. He died a week later.

Last winter, our group of Judge Duncan’s former staff members agreed that we would continue to meet every December to honor his memory.

And, although there’s not much spring left in her step, Ginger still enjoys our daily walks.

The thing is, we do not always know which cures will work for arthritis, heartbreak or societal ills. And we do not know how they work — whether through anecdotal approaches, scientifically proven mechanisms or through the justice, mercy and grace of someone like Bob Duncan.

Given the mysterious nature of life, we also never know who will be cured and who will not — or when or why. Nobody knows that.