STEINBERG: From Nuland, to us

Never had I seen a man so nostalgic. Professor Sherwin Nuland MED ’55 peered out the window of his office for several long seconds before finally speaking.

“I wrote that entire book here,” he said finally. “It was such a demanding undertaking that I often forget how rewarding each minute was.”

My professor and I were referring to Nuland’s magnum opus, “Doctors.” The book was the assigned reading for the freshman seminar “History of Scientific Medicine.” The class became Nuland’s only freshman seminar and the only one he taught after retirement. “History of Scientific Medicine” was a survey of the study of anatomy and medicine from the Greek Hippocratics to the founding of Johns Hopkins Medical School. In that span of two millennia, we discussed the healers who grappled with the complexities of the human cadaver and enlightened Western civilization with modern treatments.

On Mar. 4, 2014, Professor Sherwin Nuland passed away at his home in Hamden. I would like to share a piece of advice he offered me late last year.

In early December, Nuland brought our class to his home turf: the Yale Medical School. After class, I found myself in his office in the corner of the medical school library. Our conversation drifted to the discussion of premedical requirements.

“How do you feel about students who are premed?” I asked.

Yale’s premedical studies track is not a major, but a laundry list of courses. An aspiring doctor would adhere to such a curriculum if he or she wanted to engage in medical training after receiving an undergraduate diploma. I had wrestled with premed for some time. From my peers’ feedback, I gathered that premed requirements significantly clutter the schedule of Yale undergrads. After all, according to Yale College’s premed page, the track requires eight classes and six labs. I was convinced that this was too much.

“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with training to be a doctor,” I continued, aware that the question caught him off-guard.

His gaze drifted from the window to the bookshelf. He snatched open a dog-eared copy of Yale College Programs of Study. He handed me the book and asked me to read.

“The main goal of Yale’s programs of study is to instill knowledge and skills that students can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose.”

I looked up from the page. The quote seemed oblique.

“Too many students don’t realize what opportunities they have here,” he said with more conviction than I had every seen in class. “Students are growing estranged from Yale’s liberal arts opportunities. There is plenty of time for vocational training down the road.”

I thought about the many doctors we had discussed during the seminar. Rudolf Virchow, pioneer of the cell theory, was a German statesman and chemist. Andreas Vesalius, famous for his in-depth studies of human anatomy, was an avid writer, literary scholar and classics enthusiast.

“I spent many days in this office,” he continued. “I’ve studied healers from every era, continent and civilization. And all of them cared just as much about another field of study as they did medicine. Human knowledge is far too vast to limit one’s self to anatomy.”

“I agree with you,” I replied. I would have spoken further, but Professor Nuland appeared quite content.

“If you learn nothing else from me, heed this advice: follow your interests. Medical school will still be there on the other side. This world needs healers who examine the human body as art, akin to how an English scholar might interpret a Shakespearean sonnet or a curator might treat a drawing of Rembrandt’s.”

He guided his eyes back to the window, and then slowly sat down in a wooden chair. With the light from the small window, I finally noticed the frailty of the 83-year-old surgeon. Professor Nuland had lived a long and accomplished life. He held sagacious surgical expertise, written thirteen books on the human body for laymen, and had seen Yale since 1958. I could learn a lot from him.

“Is that all you needed, Nathan?” I had clearly overstayed my welcome.

“Yes, thank you Professor.” I closed the door and let the old man think in peace.

Nathan Steinberg is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at nathan.steinberg@yale.edu .

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