In August of 1937, William Blaine Rixner was visited and interviewed by the well-known writer, Marcus Christian. Suffering from a general paralytic stroke several months earlier, Mr. Rixner was unable to speak. “He can write almost anything you wish to know- write it for you in a slow and laborious manner, his left hand holding his right hand to keep it steady,” wrote Marcus Christian. “His oldest daughter will tell you in an apologetic manner that his writing is hard to understand. Therefore, one must get the story from both at the same time, with the daughter telling what she can of her father, and the father writing in a slow and laborious manner.”
This is how the story was told…
“He was once a very valuable man, this Negro up at Tulane, the large university on upper St. Charles Avenue. It was there that he labored for 35 years. Through all of these years, he saw white students and faculty members come and go who perhaps later made valuable contributions to the medical world. He became known and loved by all as just ‘William’ until 5 months ago when fate came and he suffered a major stroke.”
William Blaine Rixner was born in New Orleans to Jerome and Catherine Camille Rixner on 7 September 1884. His father was a carpenter/ contractor. He attended St. Francis Catholic School and went on to New Orleans University which was located on St. Charles Avenue. Unfortunately, he was forced to discontinue his education when his father moved to Galveston, Texas and started a new family. Since his mother was unable to earn enough money to care for the family, William had to seek employment and soon found work in 1902 at Tulane University. Five years later, he would marry Sylvanie Haines on 28 September 1907.
Hired as a porter, William began sweeping and mopping floors which soon took him into the rooms where cadavers were kept. What a gruesome job for those technicians whose responsibility it was to prepare these dead bodies to be dissected by medical students! Tulane had a very difficult time keeping men in this department. Many, once they were trained, developed desires to go into medicine, dentistry or pharmacy.
When William began working, there were two white technicians in the department. Often, he would be called in to assist as they went about their duties. William watched as they made histology slides for the School of Dentistry. He watched as they used the microscope. He even watched as they embalmed the bodies and, bit by bit, he learned everything he needed to know.
Soon, William was applying for a license as an embalmer which he continued to seek and received every year. He became proficient in the execution of the most difficult task, and when the two technicians quit the job, the job was given to him. He would become the only one in charge of preparing cross-sections of specimens for microscopic study as well as charged with the embalming and preparation of cadavers for dissection by students in the medical school.
During the time he was employed in this capacity, his technical skills became so advanced that he could slice sections of anatomical structures into two 25 thousandths of an inch!
Dr. Edmond Souchon, a well- renowned Professor of Anatomy at Tulane, was William’s friend and employer. He set up a museum on campus wherein he displayed a tremendous number of anatomical specimens, many of which Mr. Rixner had prepared. In 1924, William donated a disarticulated human skeleton to the Louisiana State Museum.
In its January 10th 1926 issue, the Tulane Hullabaloo called him the “only colored technician in the United States.” At the same time, Dr. Hardesty of the medical faculty spoke of William’s enviable record and great value to his department.
In his spare time, William Rixner also supervised the core of porters who worked there and even directed or assisted in the task of cabinet making whenever new ones were needed, a skill he learned as a young boy from his father. He was a Mason and a president of Le Reveil Benevolent Mutual Aid Association.
As Marcus Christian ended his interview, he wrote, “Today, he lives at his home at 1617 Urquhart Street, feeling rather penned up after so many years of effort. But whether or not his life’s work is definitely ended, he can look back upon a record of responsible achievements and distinguished service to his fellowmen. It is probably this satisfaction of having done his best which makes him the man who still can smile.”
William Rixner passed away on 18 November 1937, just three months after this interview. His wife, Sylvanie Haines Rixner, died 12 years earlier but eight children had graced their union. Their daughters were Evelyn (Harold) Dede, Alma (Arthur P.) Derbigny, Arthemise Mary (Walter) Dufauchard, Florence (Walter) Soulet, Louise (Charles) Craig plus three sons: William Jr., Henry, and Irving Joseph Rixner.
The funeral was held at his residence on Sunday afternoon, 21 November and, of course, the faculty and employees of Tulane University’s Medical Department were invited to attend. Services were held at Holy Redeemer Church with interment at St. Louis #2 Cemetery.
Sources : The Louisiana Weekly, 21 August 1937, page 2; Tulane Hullabaloo, 10 January 1926 p. 3, Howard- Tilton Library; The Times-Picayune, 21 November 1937 page 6.
Lolita V. Cherrie