The famed scientist John G. Trump once explained his theory of how to treat one malady by the “direct injection of electrons” into patients’ skin. To treat another disease, he cited tests that showed it was possible to use electrons to “destroy or inactivate hepatitis virus in blood plasma.”
But, President Trump’s uncle said, “We unfortunately were not able to persuade anybody to try this,” because there had been “some casualties among volunteers.”
The president has long said that he and his uncle, who taught physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and died in 1985, represent a rare breed of “super genius,” benefiting from the same genes.
It is not known whether the president, in his widely condemned recent suggestion that disinfectant be injected into the body to kill the novel coronavirus, was somehow vaguely channeling his uncle’s theories. What is clear is that Trump has sought repeatedly to present himself as a man of scientific knowledge largely because his uncle was so renowned — and that his efforts in recent weeks have only highlighted the vast gulf between them.
John Trump’s thoughts about killing hepatitis are detailed in the oral history archive at MIT. While he could not proceed with his theory, the idea behind it was based on his rigorous study of science. He had a career celebrated for his achievements in saving the lives of cancer patients, cleaning the environment, helping the U.S. military win World War II through radar technology and receiving the National Medal of Science.
President Trump has for years cited the genes he shares with his uncle to try to demonstrate that he, too, has a scientific intellect, an effort that he has stressed while dealing with the novel coronavirus.
“I really get it,” the president said March 6 about benefiting from his bloodline, as he discussed the coronavirus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
During his campaign, he told CNN: “I had an uncle who went to MIT who is a top professor. Dr. John Trump. A genius. It’s in my blood. I’m smart.” He told the Boston Globe that he and his uncle “have very good genetics.”
A family friend who knew John Trump personally said the scientist would have recoiled at Donald Trump’s claim of scientific knowledge when promoting unproven drugs and other treatments.
“The John Trump I knew would have been horrified,” said John Van de Graaff, whose father, the famed scientist Robert Van de Graaff, was John Trump’s longtime business partner.
Van de Graaff told The Washington Post that he joined his father in many conversations with John Trump, and recalled him as a man dedicated to the rigorous testing of ideas who would not have approved of the way the president has blurted out dangerous supposed remedies for the novel coronavirus.
“He would have been distressed by a great deal of what President Trump has done,” Van de Graaff said. “He would have said, ‘Look at the science!’ ”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
In his remarks about the virus, Trump has promoted the use of an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, saying that it could be a “game changer” and that patients had nothing to lose.
The Food and Drug Administration, however, later warned that the drug had not been proved effective to treat the coronavirus and that using it without proper supervision could lead to health complications and even death.
Separately, Trump suggested at a White House briefing that scientists study whether injecting disinfectant into the body could wipe out the virus. But after health officials warned the public against the intake of such products, the president said he was being sarcastic.
Trump has justified his forays into dispensing scientific advice by citing what he calls his shared traits with his uncle. Yet some who have studied John Trump say they see no justification for linking the intellect of the two men.
Edward Fenner spent five years working on a graduate research paper at York University of Canada that focused on the partnership between Robert Van de Graaff and John Trump. Fenner said: “What strikes me most is how different [President Trump] is from his uncle. I wish his uncle was alive to inspire the president a little bit. I think he would have been shocked and horrified at his reckless statements.”
Within the Trump family, the idea that the president and his uncle share a unique intellectual capability is embraced. John Trump’s daughter, Christine Philp, said in a telephone interview with The Post that she recalls her family and Donald Trump’s family going on outings together, and she believes that her father and the president share common traits.
“I think he has a good background of being very smart,” Philp said of the president’s family genes. She said his detractors are influenced by “fake news,” echoing a Trump talking point.
Trump’s claim that he shares his uncle’s intellect has not been substantiated in terms of academic records or awards. Trump has said that his admission to what was then called the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania is evidence of “super genius stuff” because, he said, it was the “hardest school to get into, the best school in the world.”
In fact, as The Post reported last year, the undergraduate school attended by Trump accepted more than 40 percent of applicants, and Trump was interviewed by an admissions officer who was his older brother’s close friend. That admissions officer, James Nolan, said it was “not very difficult” to get into the school at the time, and he did not believe that Trump was a “genius.”