Four soldiers with a similar wound--laryngeal damage after being shot in the throat--share a room in a German military hospital during World War I. Each of them has a tracheostomy tube, and they can only speak by covering the opening of the tube with a finger. Because every breath or laugh generates the sound of a little whistle, these men are dubbed "whistlers" and their hospital room is named after them. The injured soldiers are Pointner, Kollin, Benjamin, and an 18-year-old English prisoner of war, Harry Flint. They undergo a series of painful surgeries (without anesthesia) to dilate the narrowed and scarred air passage.

The surgeon, Dr. Quint, is a compassionate man with incredible physical strength. He holds the "whistlers" in high regard. They in turn venerate the devoted surgeon. Pointner and Kollin die. Surgery on Benjamin and Harry is successful and their tracheostomy tubes are removed. They can now breathe normally and soon discover their new voices.


Two major themes emerge from this stirring story. One is the intensity and the beauty of the patient-patient relationship and the other is the powerful ways people can communicate without the use of words. The four injured soldiers display their kinship by performing acts of kindness for one another. They also possess a silent understanding of each other’s needs and predicament. Neither deformity nor lack of speech is an impediment for these wounded roommates. One of them (Kollin) remarks, "All language is a disguise for real feelings." [p.16]

There is a moment in this story that evokes memories of another tale, Imelda, by Richard Selzer (see this database). Dr. Quint visits the hospital morgue the evening before Pointner’s funeral to locate his corpse: "It was the first time that he ever looked at a dead man’s face and it looked back." [p. 34]

The interesting genesis of the story is described in its "Epilogue." While browsing in the library, Richard Selzer noticed a thin book by Paul Alverdes published in 1929--Die Pfeifferstube in German, The Whistlers’ Room in English translation. Apparently that copy of the novella was last checked out of the library 48 years earlier. Richard Selzer decided the story deserved a better fate. He contacted the author’s son for permission to revive it and eventually he performed some literary surgery on the piece--a dramatic revision and translation. Can there be a more touching example of a successful resuscitation performed by a doctor-writer?

Primary Source

The Whistlers' Room


Shoemaker & Hoard

Place Published

Washington, D.C.



Page Count