Death Be Not Proud

By: John Gunther
Nicolette Frasco

Young Johnny Gunther

I picked this song because I believe it

Summary: Illness and Life

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther follows the enchanting battle between life and death in his joy-filled son John Gunther Jr. (Johnny). Johnny grew up living a well-to-do life. His father was a writer/journalist travelling across different parts of the world, writing stories for his Inside series. His mother, Frances, was at one time a foreign correspondent, however, she later went on to care for Johnny. Frances and John were divorced, however they made it not a central point in the book. They stayed extremely composed and cordial for Johnny’s sake. Johnny lived in an apartment in New York City and spent occasional summers up in New Haven, Connecticut, with his mother. He had a love for sailing and science. He was sent to boarding schools from an early age to maximize his education. Johnny attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts throughout the book, until his illness deprived him of the privilege to do so. The first signs of Johnny’s illness began in March 1946 while he was on his Spring Holiday. The initial symptoms were slight fatigue and later on in April, Johnny was sent to his school’s infirmary with a stiff neck. On April 25th, a neurologist discovered that Johnny had choked disks and a brain tumor was suspected. After surgery a tumor the size of an orange was found in the right occipital parietal lobe. It seemed as if Johnny was more interested by his disease than concerned. He asked doctors and nurses constant questions about his illness and the surgeries performed upon him. The preliminary diagnosis was of astrocytoma, a tumor that was not extremely aggressive and rather easy to treat. However, after slides of Johnny’s tumor were viewed by a pathologist it was discovered that Johnny had astroblastoma undergoing a transformation. There was an increase in concern surrounding Johnny’s condition, however, this tumor still seemed to be treatable. Only tumors with the prefix glio were surely fatal. A piece of skull was removed from Johnny’s head so that tumor could grow outward instead of into Johnny’s brain. A new pathologist report showed that Johnny’s tumor had undergone a glioblastomatous, now a surely fatal form of cancer. All this was just the beginning of Johnny’s year long battle between life and death with constant pangs of hope, followed by fear and confusion. The three main doctors responsible for Johnny’s treatment were Traiger, his personal doctor from before the tumor, Putnam, a neurologist called in specifically to help Johnny, and Gerson, responsible for the Gerson Diet, which was believed to help Johnny a tremendous amount later in the book. Johnny had always been an old soul. His gallantry and optimism throughout the book is matched by no other. Never once in the book is Johnny depressed by his disease. He pushes forward always, and in all ways. He continues his education and is even able to graduate with his class due to the extra credits and assignments he had made up on his own and with tutors. His education always had the utmost importance. Johnny doctors and parents tried to do all in their power to preserve what life Johnny had left after his diagnosis. He underwent multiple treatment, some even experimental. The initial treatment was the partial removal of the tumor and x-ray treatment that left Johnny rather weak. Later on, Johnny underwent experimental mustard gas treatment that his mother had read about in the paper. Johnny experienced slight success however nothing eradicated his tumor. He went on to follow the Gerson diet which consisted of daily enemas, no salts and no fats, this treatment was followed by Johnny’s most hopeful and peaceful period of his illness. The one thing that pestered Johnny throughout his illness was a bump that had formed over the initial area of Johnny’s skull that had been removed to let the tumor grow. After the peaceful period the Gerson diet had created, the bump worsened and grew a second bump. A leak led to an emergency drainage that doctors were very hesitant to do, fearing that it may interfere with the Gerson diet. The emergency was extremely successful and for a period of time the bump even disappeared. By February of 1947 the bump returns and fluid is extracted only to find the tumor is now glioma multiforme, the most deadly form of brain cancer. Another emergency surgery is performed much like Johnny’s first, in an attempt to remove some of the tumor. The bump again is suppressed and in the time following the surgery Johnny is able to walk down the aisle for graduation and receive his diploma on June 4th. Soon Johnny’s condition continues to worsen with pangs of amnesia. In an aggressive attempt to slow down his cancer all past treatments are again attempted. Johnny experiences a lovely day with his parents while all seems well after his treatments. On June 30th Johnny experiences a painful headache and is given morphine however his condition worsens and Dr. Traeger is requested at once. Trager confirmed that Johnny was dying from a cerebral hemorrhage, the tumor had eroded a blood vessel. Johnny was transported to the nearest hospital and given all known medicament and oxygen but there was nothing left to be done. Johnny Gunther died at 11:02pm after giving his last 3 gasps for air. He died fighting.

This book can be viewed from two standpoints. Much like what I summarized it may be the story of a boy and his tumor. The story of a boy who battled cancer for a year and then lost. Or, this story can viewed for what Johnny was. Johnny was a courageous young man fighting not against the cancer, but instead for his right to live through pure determination and optimism. Johnny never lost hope and his main concern was always on the well being of others, especially his parents. He died a dignified quiet death but the life he lived spoke volumes of the beauty of life. The end of the book is filled with personal letters. Some sent to Johnny’s parents after his death and others, personal letters from Johnny to his parents throughout his childhood. The most remarkable of Johnny’s writings were from his diary, which he had always left open as is if he wanted his parents to read it as a way of communication. Through these pages Johny discussed the concepts of life and death and their relation to one another. He had conversations much too advanced for a child while the next entry may be about something completely juvenile, like what he had done for schoolwork that day. He was a simple man with one of the most perplexing capacities for life and knowledge. Besides the knowledge he pertained he was also an extremely spiritual boy, largely in part to his mother Frances who constantly read to Johnny throughout his illness and discussed with him his fears and hopes. She exposed to all religions and attempted to show Johnny the world from all aspects. Most importantly she taught him to always be content, to be in touch with the universe. I believe this is largely what helped Johnny live wholly while undeniably dying. John Gunther Jr. was more than his cancer, he was somebody who loved, lived, and hoped while death stared him in the face. He embodies the person who speaks to death in the poem “Death Be Not Proud” by John Dunne. He is the one who makes death irrelevant and leaves it powerless. Perhaps that is why the quote is written on his tombstone.

Optimism in the Face of Death

I believe the entire story of Death Be Not Proud was not intended to record a cancer case. The stories purpose was for a parent to share with the world the marvel that was his only son. Johnny not only dazzled his parents but also the people around him. He was rather eccentric and had many adult friends. He was undeniably a genius. It was found that after his death his brain weighed 2,000 grams, the average weight for a normal fully grown male is 1,500, and the largest ever recorded was 2,222. Yes, mental capacity can be determined by the size of the skull and brain concealed within. He had a special passion for science and conducted numerous chemistry experiments in his personal lab in New Haven, Connecticut. He actually created his own science experiments. He had been in contact with Albert Einstein discussing his own theories and had dreams of attending Harvard. This all, I still believe, is not who Johnny Gunther was. He was more, much more. Besides a high capacity for learning, Johnny was a spiritual boy. He loved life and all there was to be done. The happiness of himself and the ones around him was of main concern. He was a selfless boy. To first understand Johnny, one must see him from another’s view. His father described Johnny saying, “ Most people did not think of his looks, however; they thought of his humor, his charm, and above all his brains. Also there was this matter of selflessness. Johnny was the only person I ever met who, truly, never thought of himself first, or, for that matter, at all; his considerateness was so extreme as to be at fault.”(Pg. 4) These were his obvious characteristics. Charm, brains, and selflessness. Not something easily seen in most people. These characteristics were seen pre tumor and I believe the cancer only exemplified them. Johnny lost a lot to cancer but the one thing I believed he gained was optimism. Johnny’s diary is full of quotes that express his love for life and determination to live. These are what fueled his, his parents, and his doctors fight and will. “But Johnny loved life desperately and we loved him desperately and it was our duty to try absolutely everything and keep him alive as long as possible.” (Pg. 125) Out of everyone involved in Johnny’s case, he showed the least worry and pessimism. I strongly believe his optimism is what allowed him to live for as long as he did. His diary quotes speak for themselves: “Life is short - so waste not a minute.”(Pg. 170), “Live while you're living then die and be done with - never refuse challenge - never give up trying etc.”(Pg. 171), “ Happiness is in Love. Accept disappointments. Relieve oneself by confession of sins. I am growing up at last.”(pg. 175). When writing a response it is considered incorrect to simply list quotes, however, I believe Johnny’s words speak for themselves. To analyze his words I fear I may butcher the beauty that lies within their simplicity. To put it easily, Johnny loved life. He emitted an aura of happiness and love to all those around him. Though at times a nonbeliever as seen in his “Unbeliever’s Prayer” he respected whatever force may rule the universe and it’s happenings. As stated by Johnny himself, “ Recontent with the universe, discontent with the world.”

The Unbeliever's Prayer:

Almighty God

Forgive me for my agnosticism;

For I shall try to keep it gentle, not cynical,
Nor a bad influence.
And O!
If thou art truly in the heavens,
Accept my gratitude
For all thy gifts
And I shall try
To fight the good fight. Amen.

"A Letter From Cancer"

I believe this is how the majority of most humans view cancer. A heinous disease that deprives the body from its own rights. However, much like death, cancer can also be personified into a weak creature. The cancer in this video is much like the cancer Johnny experienced. It fell in love with a part of Johnny, his brain. His was wretched, and twisted in and out of the one organ that could've helped the world.  It infuriated his father like it does most, " All that goes into a brain - the goodness, the wit, the sum of total enchantment in a personality, the very will, indeed the ego itself - being killed inexorably, remorselessly, by an evil growth!"(Pg. 79). Frances, Johnny's mother, is much more like John Dunne I believe. She takes cancer, and takes death and treats them like the creatures they are. She builds up only life and the absolute enchantment it contains. Frances did not receive the recognition I believed she deserved in the summary or the piece on Johnny's optimism. Her words at the end of the book sum up what the end of Johnny's life was all about, and the fight with sickness and death that allowed him to discover life. "Nothing, not even the birth of one's child, brings one so close to life as his death."(Pg. 187). She looked at death in the most positive way possible, and the new view it had given her and Johnny on life. "He was living and dying and being reborn all at the same time each day."(Pg.188) The Gunthers feared not the lack of presence from their son, they believed that, " Johnny transmits permanently something of what he was, since the fabric of the universe is continuous and eternal."(Pg. 138) The Gunthers and especially Frances emit what it means to defeat death. Finally, Frances goes on to say in her own personal journal, "Look Death in the face. To look Death in the face, and not be afraid. To be friendly to Death as to Life. Death as a part of Life, like Birth. Not the final part. I have no sense of finality about Death. Only the final scene in the single act of a play that goes on forever. Look Death in the face: it's a friendly face, a kindly face, sad, reluctant, knowing it is not welcome but having to play its part when its cue is called, perhaps trying to say, "Come it won't be too bad, don't be afraid, I understand how you feel, but come - there may be other miracles!""(Pg. 191) And this, is how I believe death should truly be personified through the wise words of Frances. Not the words within this video that cause us to fear cancer which in this case inevitably led to death.  

John and Frances Gunther
John Gunther Sr.


"Scientists will save us all"-Johnny